(Beijing) China has an answer to the heat waves currently affecting the Northern Hemisphere: burn more coal to generate more electricity…and air conditioning.

Even before 2023, China emitted nearly a third of all energy-related greenhouse gases (GHGs): more than the United States, Europe, and Japan combined. China burns more coal – its main source of energy – than the rest of the world. In June 2023, China produced 14% more electricity with coal than in June 2022.

The growing use of coal in China in recent weeks is the result of a massive campaign launched in 2021 to open coal mines and build coal-fired power plants. State media touted the 1,000 workers who worked tirelessly in the spring to complete one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in southeast China by summer.

Paradoxically, China is also the world leader in the production of renewable energies. It dominates the global clean energy supply chain, from solar panels to electric cars to battery storage. Yet, for energy security and domestic political reasons, it is doubling down on coal.

After three days of negotiations in Beijing, John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said on Wednesday that the coal issue had been the most difficult: “The challenge is to get rid of some of the dependence on coal. »

China has the largest coal reserves in the world. In a country that prioritizes national supply for its energy needs, coal is considered essential.

“We always regard national energy security as the most important mission,” Zhang Jianhua, director of the National Energy Administration, said at a press conference last spring.

In April 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would “strictly control coal-fired power plant projects and coal consumption growth” until 2025 and then “gradually reduce” it over the following five years. In September 2021, he banned any new contracts for the construction of coal-fired power plants by China in other countries.

A week later, a heat wave overloaded China’s power grid and caused power outages along the country’s coast. Workers had just minutes to evacuate the office buildings before the elevators stopped. A power outage at a chemical plant caused an explosion that injured dozens of workers.

This fiasco prompted China to urgently launch a program to increase coal mining and build more coal-fired power plants. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent halt to Russian energy supplies to Europe have strengthened Beijing’s resolve to bet on coal for its energy security.

China imports oil and natural gas, which arrive in part through sea lanes controlled by the United States or India’s navy, two geopolitical rivals.

After the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, China limited the construction of nuclear power plants to a few sites near the coast.

In January, there were more than 300 new power plants under construction, licensed or proposed in China, according to research group Global Energy Monitor. This represents two-thirds of the coal-fired power generation capacity being developed worldwide.

This myriad of projects has various explanations.

During the 2021 blackouts, Chinese provinces wanted to keep the electricity for themselves and not sell it to other provinces. Many local and provincial governments have responded by trying to build coal-fired power plants within their borders.

There will be a cost to all of this, said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing-based environmental advocacy group.

Almost all new Chinese power plants are built by state-owned companies because the private sector finds them unprofitable, says David Fishman, China power analyst at Lantau Group, a Hong Kong-based consultancy.

If China is throwing itself headlong into coal, it is also investing massively in solar and wind power. It has 3.5 times more solar capacity and 2.6 times more wind capacity than the United States, according to the International Renewable Energy Association, an intergovernmental group based in the United Arab Emirates.

China’s largest wind and solar projects are in the sparsely populated western and northwest regions, where the weather is sunny and windy most of the year. This is far from the coastal provinces, where the majority of the population lives and where many power-hungry businesses are located, and where the weather is cloudier and less windy.

Another major climate change issue is how coal is mined in China. Chinese coal is mined underground, a practice that releases a lot of methane into the atmosphere. However, methane is a greenhouse gas 20 to 80 times more potent than CO2. Chinese physicists estimate that a quarter of China’s methane emissions come from its 100,000 coal mines, mostly small mines that have long been abandoned but still leak gases.

Factories consume two-thirds of China’s electricity, and the main users are steel mills, cement works and glass factories that supply the construction industry.

But real estate is faltering: There are 80 million empty apartments in China, the result of decades of overbuilding. Housing starts fell nearly 25% in the first half of 2023 compared to 2022.

But even a housing downturn won’t undo the huge investments China has just made in coal. “All this new coal means it’s harder for China to be more ambitious” in the fight against climate change, observes Michal Meidan, head of China energy research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, an independent research group. “That could make it more difficult to establish a more aggressive schedule for emissions. »