February 29, 2024

China – solar energy leader or carbon sinner?

As of: December 2, 2023 at 4:12 AM

China is considered a leader in the field of renewable energies and wants to become climate neutral by 2060 – on the one hand. On the other hand, the country continues to expand coal mines. How does that fit together?

Marie von Mallinckrodt

Solar panels as far as the eye can see. One of the world’s largest solar power plants is being built in the Kubuki Desert in Inner Mongolia, north of China. Interview requests are gladly accepted for the leading Chinese project. This usually doesn’t happen very often when it comes to inquiries from Chinese authorities. A representative of the local energy department explained the plans to AnswerThere will be nine gigawatts of capacity by 2025, says Zhong Yuzan. The area is expected to grow to nearly 20,000 hectares by then.

China is considered a global leader in the field of renewable energies. The country has installed as many solar energy systems as the rest of the world combined. According to official figures last year 28% of China’s electricity generation comes from wind, hydro, and solar energy. This is the side of China’s energy transition that China likes to show.

But there is also the other side, which is the continued dependence on coal. Currently, capacities are not being reduced but rather being expanded. About 60 percent of electricity generation in 2022 will come from coal.

Dozens Coal-fired power plants It is being planned

The People’s Republic wants to become climate neutral by 2060. China accounts for nearly a third of all global emissions. The feasibility of implementing the 1.5 degree target agreed in the Paris Agreement of the 2015 UN Climate Convention for maximum global warming therefore depends largely on Chinese climate policy.

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One Analysis by the Finnish Center for Energy Research and the Global Energy Observatory It shows: There are new coal projects across the country, capacities are being expanded significantly, and dozens of coal-fired power plants are being planned. Even where there is already a lot of coal mining.

Coal production provides a boost

A few kilometers from a massive solar park in the Kubuki Desert in Inner Mongolia, a number of red trucks transport coal on isolated roads that wind through the barren landscape. For decades, coal mining has provided a measure of wealth in Inner Mongolia. There is not much else in terms of GDP. Sheep, cattle, a little farming and a lot of open-pit mining. You can also see this in the neighboring southern part of the country, in Shaanxi.

A new coal mine is being built in a small village in Shaanxi. More new businesses have suddenly appeared here in the past couple of years. The restaurant owner tells him AnswerHow buoyant they feel.

Your work is going well. “Now that there are some coal mines, the traffic is more intense,” she says. “A lot of people are coming. Many of the people who work in the mine are not from the area, and many of them come from other places.”

New business thanks to coal mine: the small village of Shaanxi in central China is thriving again.

Beijing is moving forward Energy security

The Chinese state and party leadership’s official justification for expanding coal use: energy security. There have been frequent shortages due to heat waves. Sometimes, hydroelectric plants did not have enough water to produce enough electricity.

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The second most populous country in the world with 1.4 billion people, it requires a lot of energy. With rapid economic growth in the past decades, the demand for electricity has also increased. Some energy experts sayChina could achieve its goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from 2030 as early as 2030. The question then is: How long will it remain at this level?

Climate neutrality Until 2060?

China officially recognizes climate change, hence its goal to become climate neutral in the long term – by 2060. But the increasing number of natural disasters and extreme weather events are not generally associated with man-made climate change in Chinese state media.

This year, the People’s Republic was affected by severe floods and dry heat with record temperatures. The reason given is that the El Niño climate phenomenon in Latin America, which occurs every few years, was responsible for the extreme weather. There is no mention of the fact that, according to research by international experts, the El Niño climate phenomenon itself could become more extreme due to climate change.

Experts: China is able to achieve its goal

Guan Dabo is a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. It deals with the consequences of climate change and advises, among other things, China and the European Union on how to work better together on climate issues.

“China experienced many heat waves last year and the year before,” he says. “These are the effects of climate change on us.” Guang Dabo said that at present, China still needs to learn from Western countries such as Germany, European countries and the United States to adapt to climate change. “The measures taken by China are not yet perfect. Dealing with climate change is a long-term issue.”

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Guan Dabo is convinced that the Chinese state and party leadership can achieve its self-imposed goal of climate neutrality by 2060. Many experts outside China agree on this. However, many are concerned about the current expansion of coal power.

Environmentalists: Coal energy is necessary as a transition

Ma Jun is one of China’s most famous environmental scientists. He believes that coal power is indispensable as a transitional stage, if only to ensure energy security while renewable energies are put into operation. But he advises restraint in all new coal projects and focuses on future innovations in renewable energy:

“Of course there are other ways to better integrate it into our energy grid. One of course is related to energy storage. The other is related to all the different regional energy networks, which can be better coordinated,” Ma Jun said.

The wind and many sunny days in the north of the country in Inner Mongolia are major assets for China’s energy transition. In the vast desert, for example, there is still room for a huge solar complex to grow. But the problem raised by environmentalist Ma Jun can be seen here too: electricity has not yet left the borders of Inner Mongolia, but rather remains in this part of the country. When the director of the solar park was asked, he said: Answer:

“Our next step is communication.” He says they are working to supply the part of the country surrounding Beijing with this electricity. So far, China remains at the forefront of both: a leader in solar and wind power, but also a mistake in coal.