View profile

China Briefing: Changes to energy targets; Xi’s coal directives; Analysis on ‘record high’ coal consumption

China Briefing
Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

The Chinese leadership has made several adjustments to its energy targets in the latest government work report delivered at the two sessions”, a series of key political meetings. Most notably, it did not set an annual energy intensity target for 2022. The officials also repeatedly stressed the importance of ensuring energy security at the conferences in Beijing.
Meanwhile, China’s president Xi Jinping issued new orders on achieving carbon neutrality at a speech during the “two sessions”, according to state media. Xi was quoted saying: “We cannot throw away our means of living first, only to find that our new livelihood has yet to arrive.” Carbon Brief interprets Xi’s orders below.
Separately, Dr Yang Muyi – senior electricity policy analyst of Asia at Ember – has analysed the causes of China’s “record high” coal consumption in 2021 for Carbon Brief. The use of the fuel was driven up “by industrial production and less-than-expected outputs from hydro capacity”, said Dr Yang.
Key developments
China omits firm energy intensity target for 2022
WHAT: The Chinese government has not set a firm annual target for energy intensity – energy consumption per unit of GDP – in this year’s work report, which is different to what it usually does. Instead, it pointed to the necessity of having some degree of “flexibility” in assessing energy intensity, a key metric that China uses to evaluate its climate action. It noted that the target would be “assessed comprehensively” within the 14th five-year plan (FYP) period, which suggested that, instead of setting a specific target for this year, the government would follow the energy intensity objective in the 14FYP. (The 14FYP aims for a 13.5% reduction in energy intensity from 2021 to 2025.) The energy intensity assessment was listed as one of the government’s “main goals” for 2022 – along with increasing employment, limiting inflation and others. 
RENEWABLES: Another climate-related main goal for 2022, according to the report, is to exclude newly added renewable energy, as well as the “energy consumed by raw materials”, from total energy consumption. The goal was first raised by the central government’s annual economic planning meeting last December. Experts previously told Carbon Brief that not counting newly added renewable energy into total energy consumption could encourage power users – especially energy-intensive businesses – to consume more clean energy. (According to Shanghai-based financial outlet Yicai, “raw materials” refers to when energy products, such as oil, coal and gas, are used as the ingredients for producing commodities instead of being used as a form of fuel. The head of the National Bureau of Statistics said the term mainly concerns coal-to-chemical and oil-to-chemical industries, Yicai reported.) 
WHO: China’s premier, Li Keqiang, delivered the latest government work report during the “two sessions” – a series of key political meetings that take place in Beijing each spring. (Carbon Brief has explained the significance of the “two sessions” in this Q&A.) The report was written by the State Council, China’s highest organ of state administration. It reviewed the government’s work in 2021 and set out the main targets and tasks for the government for 2022. This year’s report underscored the importance of stabilising the economy. 
WHEN: Li presented the work report last Saturday at the opening meeting of the fifth session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC). Each year, the gathering of the NPC – China’s top legislative body – is one of the two “sessions”. The other is that of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country’s top political advisory body. According to China’s state broadcaster CCTV, this year’s CPPCC meetings opened last Friday and will run until today, while the NPC meetings began on Saturday and will close tomorrow. 
ANALYSIS: Shanghai-based news website Jiemian said this year’s work report indicated that China’s energy policy had become “more pragmatic”. Dr Tao Jin from the Suning Institute of Finance in China told the website that stabilising economic growth would be the government’s main task for the year and a flexible energy intensity target could facilitate that. Dr Tang Yao – an associate professor at Peking University – told the outlet that the government had set a non-concrete target out of overall consideration for the economy, energy and environment. Prof Zeng Ming from Northern China Electric Power University in Beijing told Yicai that the “timely” adjustment could prevent local governments from cutting electricity or limiting factory production just to meet energy targets, as happened last year. He said the directives meant that, instead of focusing on individual targets, the government would look at a host of different elements, including carbon emissions, energy-related economic targets and “security” factors.
COAL ‘WAS BACK’: According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s energy intensity dropped by 2.7% last year. In comparison, last year’s government work report had set the target to reduce “by 3%” in 2021. Prof Lin Boqiang – dean of the China Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University in China – told Yicai that China’s energy consumption increased “dramatically” in 2021. He added that, despite its fast growth, renewable energy could not meet the soaring demand, especially during peak times. Therefore, coal “was back” and the country’s energy intensity “was higher” last year compared to a scenario when coal production had not been ramped up, Prof Lin noted. 
NEW ‘DUAL-CONTROL’: In other related instructions, this year’s government work report underlined the importance of ensuring energy security and carrying out energy transition in an “orderly” manner. (On Monday, the state economic planner explained how China plans to enhance energy security in 2022.) The report said that the government intended to “promote” a switch from its current “dual-control” policy – which caps total energy consumption and energy intensity – to a new “dual-control” policy that restricts total carbon emissions and carbon intensity (carbon emissions per unit of GDP). 
ANALYSIS: A team of researchers from the State Grid Shanghai Electric Power Research Institute analysed the significance of the “dual-control” shift in State Grid News, the official newspaper of China’s State Grid. The article said the switch could “effectively” solve the problem of local authorities limiting businesses’ electricity usage to hit targets. The piece explained that the energy intensity “dual-control” policy directly determines the amount of energy companies can use. In contrast, the new carbon intensity “dual-control” policy caps the level of their emissions. Therefore, the move sends a “more direct and clearer message of reducing emissions” and could guide firms to use more “green” electricity. The authors noted the two policies were “likely to coexist in the long run”. (China introduced the idea of an absolute cap on carbon emissions in the 14FYP, but did not specify a number.)
ACHIEVEMENTS: The government work report also pointed to four achievements in 2021: namely, the surpassing of 1,000 gigawatts (GW) in the installed capacity of renewable energy generation; the publication of the carbon-peaking action plan; the launch of the national emissions trading scheme (ETS); and the “active” tackling of climate change. 
WESTERN COVERAGE: Bloomberg reported that anyone hoping China would use the “two sessions” to speed up its action on climate change “was left sorely disappointed”. On the energy targets, the outlet said that the last time China “avoided” an annual target for energy intensity was 2020 during the country’s initial fight against Covid-19. It added that the leaders “reiterated several accounting changes” that would enable the country to burn more fuel while still hitting its energy intensity target in the 14FYP. A separate Bloomberg report said that China “shuns” the energy intensity target “to focus on securing fuel supply”. Reuters reported the “concern” from “environmental groups” that China could “backslide” on its environmental commitments due to its priority for the economy. In addition to the lack of the annual energy intensity target, the work report “also said China would not include major national projects in state energy consumption control targets”, Reuters said.
QUOTES: Commenting on the government work report, Prof Alex Wang – the faculty co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment of UCLA School of Law in the US – told Carbon Brief: “The key takeaway is that energy security and continued development are to be core priorities to be balanced against the ‘dual-carbon’ goals. The message is not surprising in a period of economic uncertainty, but it is worrisome from an environmental perspective. This year’s NPC meeting has emphasised economic growth. Official comments on climate policy have continually emphasised the need to move cautiously on coal reduction. Perhaps, this is just a call for ‘smart’ decarbonisation, but it is hard to see how this does not also mean ‘slower’ decarbonisation.”
Xi issues new orders on achieving carbon neutrality
WHAT: China’s president Xi has instructed the country to go “steadily” and not to “hurry” while striving towards the goal of carbon neutrality in a recent meeting, reported People’s Daily – the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China. According to the paper’s readout, Xi said that, as the world’s largest developing country, China intends to achieve the world’s “sharpest drop” of carbon emissions, using the “shortest time” to go from the carbon peak to carbon neutrality. He acknowledged that, as the whole country pursued the goals with “action” and “unity”, some regions “inevitably” went “too fast” and “too drastic”. Among other things, Xi cautioned against “campaign-style carbon reduction” and “sudden brakes” while trying to meet the “dual-carbon” goals. 
XI: While Xi mostly repeated his previous orders in his address, the People’s Daily highlighted one of Xi’s quotes: “We cannot throw away our means of living first, only to find that our new livelihood has yet to arrive. (不能把手里吃饭的家伙先扔了,结果新的吃饭家伙还没拿到手,这不行。)”
WHEN: According to People’s Daily, Xi made the remarks last Saturday during an NPC meeting of the Inner Mongolia delegation at the “two sessions”. Inner Mongolia is one of China’s top three coal-producing regions. According to official statistics, it produced 1bn tonnes of “raw coal” in 2021, a quarter of the national total
WHO: People’s Daily said that Xi delivered the address after listening to a report made by a representative of a coal-to-chemical company based in Baotou, a major industrial base in Inner Mongolia. The representative, named Jia Run’an, talked about how the coal-to-chemical industry could “assist” China’s carbon peaking and carbon neutrality by developing in “high-end, diversified and low-carbon” ways, People’s Daily said. 
SIGNIFICANCE: China News Service, a Chinese state-run newswire, interpreted the quote highlighted by People’s Daily. It said that Xi had made three points. First, Xi had noticed the “unrealistic” and “overzealous” efforts to reduce emissions and wanted to stress that “normal life and production” are as important as the environment. Second, Xi emphasised that coal would be the “mainstay” of China’s energy mix for the short term and hitting climate goals must be based on this “national reality”. Third, Xi wanted to reassert the instruction of “establishing [new rules] before breaking old ones”, an order he had given last July. (Carbon Brief has explained the previous order in this article.)
QUOTES: Byford Tsang – senior policy advisor at E3G, a climate change thinktank – told Carbon Brief that Xi’s latest words reiterated his previous message of “establishing first, breaking later”. He explained that Xi was speaking “more metaphorically” this time by referring to China’s current power system as the “means to make a living”. He added that it was “notable” that Xi had said those words to delegates from Inner Mongolia, “where the coal industry is one of the primary ‘means to make a living'”.
What caused China’s ‘record high’ coal consumption last year?
(This analysis is written by Dr Yang Muyi – senior electricity policy analyst of Asia at Ember, an independent climate and energy thinktank – for Carbon Brief.)
China’s coal consumption grew by 4.6% in 2021, reaching a record high of 29.3bn tonnes of standard coal (tce). The surge was caused by a mix of factors, including strong economic growth fuelled by industrial production and less-than-expected outputs from hydro capacity.  
The 29.3bn figure is estimated based on the figure of total energy consumption (52.4bn tce) and the share of coal consumption (56%) in the 2021 statistical report released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). It comprises coal used for both electricity generation and final consumption, such as heating and industrial use. The actual coal consumption figure for 2021 has not yet been released.  
ON THE DEMAND SIDE: China’s GDP growth accelerated again last year, registering an 8.1% year-on-year increase. Different from before, last year’s economic growth was primarily driven by the energy-intensive secondary industry, not the tertiary or service industry. This, in turn, pushed up the country’s demand for energy, especially for coal (both coking and thermal coal). Indeed, China’s electricity consumption grew by 10.3% in 2021, compared to 2020. This increase – coupled with the lack of hydropower due to meteorological conditions – created the need for coal power. 
ON THE SUPPLY SIDE: China’s coal imports saw a 6.6% year-on-year rise in 2021, reaching 320m tonnes. Despite the increased imports, they only satisfied 15% of the coal consumption growth. As a result, local production had to be increased to fill the gap. Media outlets had reported that China’s coal imports dropped by 25% last year. That figure referred to coking coal, not thermal coal.
ENERGY MIX: The share of coal in China’s energy-consumption mix continues to fall, from 69% in 2010 to 56% in 2021. The continuous shrinkage of coal’s portion owes to the rapid growth of clean energy. For example, in 2021, China’s nuclear, wind and solar power generation grew by 11%, 41% and 25% year-on-year, respectively.
FORECAST: It is expected that China’s energy demand growth will remain at a relatively fast speed for some time in the future. As clean energy has not yet been developed to a level that can fully satisfy the incremental demand, coal will still be needed to fill the gap. Therefore, it is likely that China’s coal consumption will keep growing, though at a much slower rate. China has also pledged to “strictly limit” the increase in coal consumption over the 14FYP period (2021-2025) and will phase it down in the 15FYP period (2026-2030). This means that room for growth in coal consumption is likely to be very limited.
(For more on China’s coal consumption and the surge in industrial activity in the first half of last year, see Lauri Myllyvirta’s latest guest post for Carbon Brief.)
Extra reading
New science
Latest from Carbon Brief
Guest post: In conflict and peace, what drives deforestation in Colombia?
Cropped: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; IPCC report; Palm oil deforestation plunge
Declining ‘resilience’ pushing Amazon rainforest towards tipping point
Please email any feedback or tips to
Carbon Brief WeChat
In order to unsubscribe, click here.
Manage all your newsletter subscriptions here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
180 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1LB, United Kingdom