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China Briefing: ‘Record-high’ coal output; Winter Olympics 2022; Xi’s new directives

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.

China’s coal mining hit a “record high” in December, reaching 384.67m tonnes – a 7.2% year-on-year increase – according to Reuters. It added that the country’s coal production for the whole of 2021 also broke the record, totalling 4.07bn tonnes, up 4.7% compared to 2020. The newswire cited the latest figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Meanwhile, the organisers of the Winter Olympics 2022 in Beijing have pledged that the games “will achieve carbon neutrality fully”. In a new “sustainability” report, they have stated that all of the carbon emissions generated by the event – estimated to be 1.3m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) – are set to be “fully neutralised” through a series of measures.
Elsewhere, Chinese president Xi Jinping gave new climate-related instructions on Monday. He said that it would be “impossible [for China] to accomplish [its climate goals] in one stroke”. He also directed the nation to “break [old systems] while establishing [new ones]” and “go stable and steady”. These phrases are explained below. 
Key developments
China sees ‘record high’ coal output in December and 2021
WHAT: China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released its energy production figures for December on Monday. It said that the nation had produced 380m tonnes of “raw” (unprocessed) coal during the month – a 7.2% year-on-year increase – with an average daily production of 12.41m tonnes. The official figures also showed that throughout 2021, China had produced 4.07bn tonnes of raw coal, up 4.7% compared to 2020. The news came as China’s top economic planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said on Tuesday that coal stock in those electricity plants subject to the direction of state-run grids had been “at the highest level for the same period in history”. It stressed that the country’s demand for electricity would be “effectively ensured”. In 2021, coal made up 64% of power generation in China, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.
MEDIA COVERAGE: Reuters said that China’s coal production “hit record highs” in both December and across the whole of 2021. The newswire reported a more precise figure for December: 384.67m tonnes. (China Briefing reported last October that Chinese authorities had pledged to “go all out” to boost coal production in a bid to tackle widespread power cuts.) Mysteel – a website focusing on commodity news, data and analyses – said that December’s coal production was “a record high since the NBS data was available in 1989”. The Guardian and CNN also reported on the figures. 
GROWTH: China’s energy regulator, the National Energy Administration, said in a release on Monday that China’s electricity consumption had reached 8,312 terawatt hours in 2021, a 10.3% rise compared to 2020. A day later, Li Yunqin – director of the ​​Bureau of Economic Operations Adjustment at the NBS – said that the nation’s electricity consumption was expected to “grow relatively rapidly” in 2022. 
REACTION: Dr Yang Muyi – senior electricity policy analyst of Asia at Ember, an independent climate and energy thinktank – told Carbon Brief that the 4.7% growth rate of coal production in 2021 was “roughly consistent” with the country’s “trend of coal production growth” since 2017, with 2020 as an exception due to Covid-19. (The coal production growth rate in China was 3.2% in 2017, 4.5% in 2018 and 4.2% in 2019). He explained that China’s coal production growth had “slowed significantly” in recent years, falling from roughly 15% during the first decade of the century. He added: “This is a huge step forward in terms of energy decarbonisation, though more efforts are still needed to put the world on a 1.5 degrees-aligned pathway.” He added that energy decarbonisation “is a long process and won’t happen overnight”.
QUOTES: Dr Shi Xunpeng, research principal at the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, told Carbon Brief that the news of another “historical peak” of coal production was “expected” and “not contradictory” to China’s pledge of peaking emissions before 2030. He pointed to a speech Xi had made last April. He said that Xi’s address “implies that [China’s] coal consumption could further increase before 2025. Even though [Xi] committed to gradually reducing coal consumption in the 15th five-year-plan period (2026-2030), the peak does not seem necessary to occur in the first year (2026). Therefore, it would not be a surprise to see recorded levels of coal production and consumption in the next five years or so.”
Beijing details ‘carbon-neutral’ measures for Olympics
WHAT: The organisers of the Beijing Winter Olympics have explained how they will host a so-called “carbon-neutral” event, which comprises the Winter Olympics from 4-20 February and the Winter Paralympics from 4-13 March. At a press conference last Thursday, Li Sen, director-general of the general planning department at the Beijing Organising Committee for the games, said that the upcoming event “will achieve carbon neutrality fully”. He mentioned a series of measures, including “low-carbon” venues, “green” electricity, vehicles run on “clean energy” and using natural CO2 as a refrigerant. The games will take place in Beijing and Zhangjiakou, a city 110 miles north-west of Beijing.
WHEN: Also last Thursday, the organisers released a report to elaborate on the measures for achieving “sustainability” and “carbon neutrality”. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, praised those measures. He said: “From reusing venues from the Olympic Games 2008 to powering all Beijing 2022 venues with renewable energy, to the many measures to minimise environmental impacts and reduce carbon emissions…all these initiatives are inspired by Olympic Agenda 2020 and underline the commitment of Beijing 2022 to contribute to the sustainable development in China.” The report’s highlights include:
1.3M TONNES: The organisers have projected the games’ “greenhouse gas (GHG) baseline emissions” to be 1.3m tonnes of CO2e, which cover the direct and indirect emissions during the preparation and the hosting. According to the report, the emissions are set to be neutralised through emissions-reduction measures, such as energy conservation, and compensatory measures, such as carbon offsetting and forest sinks. 
RENEWABLE: The organisers have pledged that the “conventional” electricity demand of all venues will be supplied by renewable energy. The report highlighted the role of the Zhangbei renewable energy flexible DC power grid, a £1.4bn project launched in 2020 to take in the wind, solar and biomass power from Zhangjiakou before converting it to direct current for Beijing users. 
VENUES: All of the 16 sporting venues – whether they are newly built or renovated – have been certified as “green” buildings, according to various industry standards, the report said. Three “ultra-low-energy” areas adopt enhanced energy-saving measures, including solar-powered hot water systems. The report added that the organisers would recycle CO2 from industrial waste gases and use it as a refrigerant to make ice in some venues.
TRANSPORT: The majority of the 4,090 vehicles serving the games’ three zones will be powered by renewable energy, according to the report. It said that the transport in the Beijing zone would “mainly” rely on pure electric and natural-gas-powered vehicles. Meanwhile, the zones of Zhangjiakou and Yanqin – a Beijing suburb – are due to use hydrogen-fuelled vehicles “mainly”. 
‘FAKE’ SNOW: China has faced controversy over its use of artificial snow for the games. Last month, AFP (via France24) reported that the organisers “are racing to coat the pistes in high-quality snow – a vast and complex task that critics say is environmentally unsustainable”. The Washington Post said that “it remains unclear how Beijing has been able to ensure vast quantities of artificial snow are available without depleting water supplies”. The Guardian wrote that the International Olympic Committee “now faces mounting questions about the environmental cost” of the games”. The Mail on Sunday highlighted the games’ “bleak, snowless landscape” and questioned: “Why has the Winter Olympics gone to Beijing?” The report said that the organisers would only use “surface water” for making ice and snow and “the recycling of rainwater and snowmelt water is fully considered”. It added that the water consumption would only be a tiny fraction of the local water resources. CGTN – the English arm of China’s state broadcaster – published a report, saying that “experts dismiss criticisms” of Beijing’s artificial snow.
Xi orders ‘stable and steady’ climate drive in Davos address
WHAT: China’s president Xi Jinping gave new instructions on the nation’s efforts to peak carbon emissions and achieve carbon neutrality at a virtual address at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Monday. According to Carbon Brief’s translation of his Chinese speech, Xi said that it would be “impossible [for China] to accomplish [its climate goals] in one stroke (不可能毕其功于一役)”. He added that China should “break [old systems] while establishing new ones” and “go stable and steady (稳扎稳打)” to carry out energy transition. (Carbon Brief understands that Xi was likely referring to the “breaking” of fossil-fuel systems and the “establishment” of renewable energy.) Xi explained that the nation would “reduce [the use of] traditional energy gradually and orderly in the course of promoting reliable new energy substitutions to ensure steady social and economic development”. 
DIFFERENCE: The latest directives echo some previous orders issued by Xi last year by emphasising balanced, coordinated efforts (similar to these orders from July) and highlighting the importance of an “orderly” replacement of fossil fuels (akin to his coal instructions in September). However, there are also notable differences. In August, the Chinese leadership directed the country to ​​“establish [new systems] before breaking old ones”. (Carbon Brief has analysed the order in this explainer.) However, in Xi’s speech on Monday, his directive was to “break [old systems] while establishing [new ones]”, calling on the nation to reduce fossil fuels and develop renewable energy simultaneously.
EXPLANATION: 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 that, by stating that China could not “accomplish [its climate goals] in one stroke”, Xi was calling for “patience and understanding in the face of slow actions, or perhaps actions that seem counter to peaking and neutrality”. He said the order of “break[ing old systems] while establishing [new ones]” could be read as “a shot across the bow to coal and other sources of greenhouse gases” and “certainly seems more promising” than its previous version. Dr Guo Li, research associate of Lau China Institute at King’s College London, told Carbon Brief that the change of the wording could be a sign of “assurance” of China’s climate ambition, as well as indication that Xi was “more confident than last year when he seemed to apply brakes on the scramble to reduce emissions”.
SIGNIFICANCE: Prof Wang believed that Xi’s speech was calling for “moderate, steady reform” by promoting reliable new energy and slowly reducing traditional energy. He also pointed out: “One read is that this [address] signals continued movement toward green development. But someone who favoured a go-slow approach to environmental reform could use these statements to support their position as well.” Dr Guo Li said the address signalled that China would take “careful measures and steps” in pushing its carbon peaking and carbon neutrality agenda and that “people should expect to see setbacks and slow progress in this process”.
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