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Bloomberg: China’s Coal Industry Fights for Survival in a Greener World

Wed December, 2020, Age: 3 years

When President Xi Jinping announced in September that China would be carbon-neutral by 2060, he gave coal a four-decade transition period. The long transition buys China time to use up its vast coal resources and figure out how to gradually shut down an industry that still employs, directly and indirectly, tens of millions of people.

Easing off coal slowly would reduce abrupt shocks that risk bringing unrest, the Communist Party’s biggest nightmare, by dulling the inevitable pain to China’s army of coal workers. Coal’s long exit is part of a two-speed approach proposed by climate scientists at Tsinghua University. Citing the inertia of energy and economic systems, they proposed allowing coal power plants to continue being built until around 2030, when China will be richer and replacement technologies will have advanced. Then the plan calls for the ongoing transition to solar and nuclear to accelerate sharply.

Chinese state-owned utilities are betting on coal’s longevity by investing in new high-tech mining technologies and building new coal-fired power plants, with their fleets set to expand about 10% by 2025. But the coal industry and local governments that support it may be too optimistic about the remaining timeline. China needs to stop building coal power plants immediately if it wants to meet the 2060 pledge, according to the Draworld Environment Research Center and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. That goal would require whittling China’s coal fleet down to 680 gigawatts by 2030, a reversal of the 1,300-gigawatt expansion currently planned. Before long an uncomfortable truth could push to the forefront: China’s national target of reaching net-zero emissions might not be compatible with another generation of coal.