Coal needed to 'guarantee jobs' in China

Senior official says fossil fuel still important, days after Xi vows to lower its consumption

A senior Chinese official in charge of climate change policy yesterday defended the country’s use of coal, just days after President Xi Jinping said China would begin its drawdown of coal consumption in a matter of years.

The director-general of the environment ministry’s climate change department, Mr Li Gao, said at a press briefing that new coal-fired power plants provided a source of employment and helped stabilise the grid with a predictable source of energy.

“They mainly help guarantee people’s livelihoods, and guarantee the flexibility and security of our energy grid,” Mr Li said, while adding that such plants may not  run at “full capacity”.

China has been criticised for expanding its use of coal power, with climate analysts pointing out that these actions do not align with the country’s long-term climate goals.

Mr Xi had previously pledged that China’s carbon emissions would peak before 2030, and the country should attain carbon neutrality by 2060.

The Chinese President reiterated these commitments last week at a virtual climate summit called by his US counterpart Joe Biden.

Mr Xi also told the summit that Beijing would “strictly control” its use of coal over the next five years  before starting to lower consumption from 2026.

A report by the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) in February showed that China commissioned 38.4GW of coal-fired power last year, more than three times the 11.9GW commissioned in the rest of the world.

It now has 247GW of coal power under development, more than six times greater than Germany’s entire coal-fired capacity, said the GEM report.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, and while it has been progressively weaning itself off it, the fossil fuel still provides  the bulk of the country’s power needs.

In 2005, more than 72 per cent of China’s power came from coal but this dropped to 56.8 per cent last year. China’s energy regulator said last week that it aimed to reduce this further to below 56 per cent this year.

Yesterday, while defending the role of coal, Mr Li also pointed out that China was in the midst of an energy transition and that the heavily polluting fossil fuel would not take up such a dominant role in the future.

“In the past, (coal) was the main source of power. But in the future,  (its role) will be to help guarantee and provide flexibility for the power grid,” he said.

He said that while China was making efforts to develop renewable energy, the current energy storage technology needed “revolutionary” improvement before renewables could take the place of coal in providing a secure and stable source of power.

“We still need coal to provide a certain degree of energy grid security, but we won’t develop it on a large scale. This will be strictly controlled,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2021, with the headline 'Coal needed to 'guarantee jobs' in China'. Subscribe