For the sake of the climate, there needs to be a global campaign to reduce China’s coal

Aiqun Yu

There is a popular brain-teaser question in China: How many steps do you need to put an elephant into a refrigerator? The answer is three steps: first, open the door of the refrigerator; second, put the elephant into it; third, close the door.

I was thinking of this question when I read the news that the China Electricity Council, a semi-official advocacy organization of the Chinese energy industry, recently released a report suggesting that China cap its coal power capacity by 2030 at 1300GW. This would exceed its current coal power capacity (end of 2018) by 290GW.

The increase would be more than the total current coal power capacity of the US (259GW). The EU countries would have to phase out ALL of their current coal power capacity (160GW) almost TWICE to make up for the newly added coal power by China.

The enormous size of China’s economy and the intensity of its energy development are big enough to undo any emission reduction by other countries. As long as China does not significantly reduce its total amount of coal use, and thereby significantly reduce the total amount of CO2 emissions, there is no hope that the global community can reach the Paris climate targets of keeping global average temperature at 1.5°C or at least well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

Everybody concerned about global climate policy sees the elephant in the room. People are walking around it, talking about it, occasionally touching it. There are lots of reports, books, papers, seminars, grant projects, PhD dissertations and scholarships for research on China’s coal use and its impact on global warming.

But what is now needed is to take action, push the elephant into the refrigerator and close the door.

China’s government is currently drafting its next 5-year energy development plan and preparing its long-term development plan for the 2020-2035 period. This is a crucial moment to have an impact on the policy making process from inside and outside China. It’s an opportunity for action.

The Trump administration retreated from the global climate agenda, making it impossible for the United States to have a positive impact on China at the intergovernmental level. If President Obama could sit down with President of China Xi Jinping to sign joint announcement on fighting global warming, forcing China being more accountable, the current president apparently has no interest in using this leverage.

The ongoing trade talks with China are supposed to be the best chance to convince China to accelerate the pace of its coal phase-out and take more responsibility for climate change. But it’s clear that the trump card has no power in this game.

The challenges facing Chinese civil society

Meanwhile, a combination of legislative actions and technologies designed to prevent information from the outside world from reaching Chinese society is hindering Chinese civil society from taking action on coal. English sources from outside China cannot be found through the Google-like search engine Baidu. Using VPNs to search foreign websites is a criminal offense.

The information that is introduced into China is often censored or rewritten. For example, a Chinese news outlet did report the finding from Global Energy Monitor’s annual report Boom and Bust that global coal power development declined the third year in a row. But it omitted intentionally the finding of the report that total coal power construction worldwide increased 12% in 2019, because China had resumed the development of previously shelved plants. Indeed, the news did not mention China at all, though the Boom and Bust report includes a lengthy discussion about China.

In addition to blocking outside information, China has tightened the control of civil society, making it almost impossible for activists to work on issues like environmental protection and social justice. Domestic NGOs are facing extreme difficulties to receive funding from abroad. Foreign NGOs must register with a local governmental sponsor. Since not many institutions and governmental agencies are qualified and willing to take the responsibility to sponsor foreign NGOs, many have left, or are left in limbo.

Censorship of domestic media, including online media, has reached a new high. After several rounds of crackdown, the voices of critics have been mostly muted. Even comments or retweets on certain topics are risky. These restrictions have severely limited the discussion of critical environmental issues like coal power.

Under these circumstances, what can global civil society do? No silver bullet can be found. But we have to try from various perspectives. The elephant won’t walk into the fridge on its own. It needs to be pushed.

For now, challenging China’s claim to climate leadership, trying to influence its policy-making process may be a path on workable base.

Here are some specific suggestions for global climate activists:

  • Put pressure on China’s state-owned enterprises, which own the majority of the coal power fleet at home and are the biggest Chinese investors in coal power projects overseas. As an example, the Unfriend Coal network is sending letters to China’s insurance companies asking them to stop insuring coal projects, and putting them into a ranking list with other global insurers based on their coal policies and practices;
  • Seek and find comprehension and support from China’s domestic energy industry, including the quick-growing renewable energy sector;
  • Keep communication lines open between China and the outside world by inviting Chinese scholars, officials, journalists, and NGO members to go abroad, for example for academic study, workshops, international conferences, internships, etc;
  • Speak up in China’s social media. The good news is that Wechat, the Chinese version of a combined Facebook, Twitter and blog platform, is not blocked outside China. We should use this platform to keep the information flow across the Wall;
  • Cultivate the leadership of local NGOs. The older generation of environmental campaigners is retiring. The new generation is living in a more difficult situation. They need our support; and
  • Translate your papers, reports, articles etc. into Chinese, and send as many copies as possible to Chinese counterparts, officials, entrepreneurs, policy makers, academics and news media.

Even though China has taken important steps forward on renewable energy, China is not saving the planet, as some optimistic observers have suggested. It is heating up the planet with its continued building of coal plants and its increasing coal consumption.

To reach global climate goals, China has to take aggressive steps to reduce its coal use quickly and significantly. It is time for the global community to initiate a campaign to push this giant coal-fired elephant into the fridge.

Aiqun Yu is China Researcher for Global Energy Monitor.