The expansion in coal power production towards the end of last year cast doubts on Xi Jinping’s pledge made at a UN summit in September for China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The PRC’s overreliance on coal is the biggest hindrance to implementing the General Secretary’s green agenda. Thus far, the politically powerful coal lobby, which supports tens of millions of jobs in China, has relied on concerns about energy security to secure their dominant position in the energy mix. However, last week a central environmental inspection group published a damning report accusing the National Energy Agency (NEA) of failing to reign in the coal industry and of neglecting clean energy reforms. Its publication marks a strengthening in the political standing of China’s environmental planners, who had previously played second fiddle to economic and energy planners. The unusually scathing report reveals frustration on the part of CCP leaders over the failure of provincial leaders and SOE bosses to implement Xi’s environmental agenda. This will in turn give greater prominence to limits set on carbon-emitting power generation that will be published next month in the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) for the period 2021-26.
China leads the investment race
China’s record on environmental reform has been a mixed bag. It is simultaneously the world’s leading investor in clean energy, while also outpacing others on coal energy production. Beijing has made strong environmental commitments on the international stage, at the same time as signalling its unwillingness to engage with the new Biden administration on climate change should Washington pursue a hawkish foreign policy. However, the overall trend is a positive one. Beijing is promoting the political standing of the environmental planners, and incrementally eroding the foundations on which the fossil fuel industry had maintained its preeminent position. The road to securing a carbon-neutral future by 2060 will undoubtedly experience set-backs, especially in the event of an economic recession. However, Xi’s pledge at the UN summit was not merely political posturing for a global audience. Serious political capital and money are being invested into achieving this goal, as the forthcoming 14th FYP will make clear. The next challenge is convincing provincial bosses and energy bosses to enact these ambitious reforms.