China and COP26: Will an energy crisis hurt effort to cut emissions?

In China’s Guangdong province, factory owner Zhang Hong was ordered in late September to shut down for four days a week, hurting output and workers’ income at her printed circuit-board factory.

It’s part of a larger energy crisis in China. 

Why We Wrote This

China will play a meaningful role in whether the world can curb global warming. But it’s also an industrial powerhouse, and recent electricity shortages show challenges ahead in balancing economic and environmental goals.

strength shortages have been disrupting daily life and factory output, dampening the economy, and exacerbating supply chain disruptions around the world. The shortages arose when soaring domestic need for coal ran up against government controls on electricity prices and usage, and on coal imports.

As world leaders meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, China is at the minimum temporarily scrambling to get more coal-fired strength, not less. All this highlights the extent of China’s long-term challenge in phasing out fossil fuels.

China has pledged that its emissions will peak by about 2030, and it will reach carbon neutrality by 2060.

“There are … voices and interests in China that are trying to use this crisis to attack China’s climate targets and ambitions, and to press how important it is to increase supply of fossil fuels,” says energy expert Lauri Myllyvirta in Helsinki.

Meanwhile, “some of the measures taken already also assistance clean energy,” he says. “It’s too early to say which of these responses will win out.”

Seattle

Liu Rui, a university student in Tonghua, a city in Jilin province, felt eager. A sudden, extensive strength outage across northeastern China had left her family without electricity to cook or heat water, and her laptop’s battery was running out before an online class.

“I was always worried the internet would suddenly disconnect during class,” says Ms. Liu by email, using a pseudonym to protect her privacy. She describes her neighborhood’s darkened streets and shops, and feeling like a thief going by a dimmed supermarket looking for frozen steamed buns – only to find no buns and the freezer shut off.

Thousands of miles south in China’s Guangdong province, factory owner Zhang Hong faced a similar dilemma. Her printed circuit-board factory, part of China’s great ecosystem of electronics manufacturing, had been ordered in late September to shut down for four days a week, hurting output and workers’ income. “Government staff will notify us whether work can start the next day,” she says, speaking on condition her real name be withheld.  

Why We Wrote This

China will play a meaningful role in whether the world can curb global warming. But it’s also an industrial powerhouse, and recent electricity shortages show challenges ahead in balancing economic and environmental goals.

Across China, the worst strength shortages in a decade have in recent months led to electricity rationing in most provinces – disrupting daily life and factory output, dampening the economy, and exacerbating supply chain disruptions around the world. The shortages arose when soaring domestic need for coal ran up against government controls on electricity prices and usage, and on coal imports.

To raise strength output, Beijing has responded with a major push to increase coal production and strength generation, in addition as with a meaningful easing of controls on electricity prices. But as world leaders meet at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to try to tackle greenhouse gas emissions that have already raised average global temperatures by over a degree Celsius from preindustrial levels, all eyes are on China, the world’s largest polluter and second-largest economy.  

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