SHANGHAI - Though China is aiming to roll out record amounts of renewable capacity this year as decarbonisation elsewhere stalls, economic challenges mean Beijing is unlikely to tackle rising coal consumption ahead of schedule - and may hit a more painful peak.
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged last year to "strictly control" coal and start cutting its use starting in 2026 to bring its climate-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to a peak before 2030. China's emissions are the highest in the world.
Although those targets are unlikely to change, environmental groups fear growing energy security concerns mean coal use and CO2 emissions could peak at a much higher level than planned.
Chinese energy officials have been drawing attention to the "return to coal" in Europe amid oil and gas supply disruptions during the Ukraine conflict, noting China's shift to clean energy will not waver. State media have accused Europe of hypocrisy when it comes to climate action.
"As global energy supplies tightened last year, and as many countries in Europe restart coal-fired power, the development of our country's non-fossil fuel energy has continued unabated," Zhang Jianhua, head of China's energy bureau, said during a briefing last month.
Germany reconnected a mothballed coal plant to the grid this month and is expected to ramp up coal imports to keep power stations running as Russian gas supplies dwindle.
China expects its consumption to rise for another three years. Though renewables are expected to account for half of new capacity additions over 2021-2025, that would still allow more than 250 GW of new fossil fuel-fired power, forecasts issued by the China Electricity Council this year showed.
China also has boosted annual coal production by 490 million tonnes since last year, enough to meet demand from Germany and Russia combined, the coal mine safety bureau said this month, describing coal as "still our country's most important source of power".
The Chinese power grid is under tremendous strain in the face of a punishing heatwave.
The country has continued to develop new coal-fired plants, with construction on the second phase of the Zheneng Liuheng coal-fired power station in eastern China's Zhejiang province beginning at the start of this month. New coal-fired power construction was at its highest since 2016 last year.
CHINA VS EUROPE
Europe led the way in lobbying China to make more ambitious fossil fuels cuts, but could not persuade Beijing to phase out rather than "phase down" coal use during climate talks in Glasgow last year.
China also canceled climate talks with the United States after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
Sarah Brown, senior energy and climate analyst with Ember, said that European countries are committed to phasing out fossil fuels, but that their hand in climate diplomacy could weaken if a temporary return to coal turns out to be lasting.
"If there's any evidence that they're not implementing the renewables at the speed that they need to... that's when I feel questions will be asked," she said.
Zhang of the National Energy Administration told reporters that the share of non-fossil fuels in China's total energy consumption will rise by one percentage point a year up to 2030. It is also aiming to bring wind and solar capacity up to 1,200 GW by 2030, nearly double the level of last year.
There are mixed signals about whether China was backtracking on its climate commitments over energy security concerns, said Jorrit Gosens, who researches China's energy policies at Australia National University.
Coal production rose 11% in the first half of 2022, he said, but there are no signs that consumption will rise; much of the production increase will offset declining imports.
"The energy crisis and perceived return to coal in Europe is giving some people in China a moment of schadenfreude," said Li Shuo, senior climate adviser with Greenpeace in Beijing. "If the situation in Europe is not fuelling more coal consumption here yet, it is certainly reinforcing Beijing's pre-existing desire to ensure energy security by all means."
(Reporting by David Stanway Additional reporting by Kate Abnett in Brussels)