In 2013, Beijing officials promised that they will close the city’s four coal stations by the end of 2017, and they’ve kept their word.

Closing down on coal

Beijing has been struggling with smog for a long time, but eliminating the city’s coal stations is expected to make a big difference. Image credits: 螺钉.

The Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant has dominated Beijing outskirts for 18 years, providing much of the city’s energy. But as of today, the 21 million Beijing residents will have coal-free electricity, something which was hailed in the Chinese media as a major environmental victory, making Beijing the first coal-free city in China. The generator will be maintained as a back-up for emergency cases.

Beijing’s mayor, Cai Qi, was quoted as saying:

“Replacing coal with clean energy is not only to deal with air pollution but also a requirement of the company’s transformation.”

Indeed, Beijing has been greatly struggling with its air quality. In late 2015 and early 2016, authorities issued a state of emergency due to the smog that was clamping down on the city. To fight smog, Beijing started cutting in on coal consumption by changing hundreds of thousands of households from coal-fired boilers to electrical heating. But if the electricity comes from coal, you don’t really solve anything — this is why the municipality also vowed to eliminate coal plants. However, just a small fraction of that energy will actually be green, most of it will come from a new natural gas plant that the Chinese are building. While natural gas pollutes much less and emits less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, it’s still not a sustainable solution. China’s natural gas imports surged to a record high in November 2016, raising concerns that the country isn’t really heading in the right direction — just shifting a bigger evil with a smaller evil. Coal production and consumption has been falling since 2013, but natural gas imports have been growing significantly, though it still only covers less than 10% of the country’s electricity.

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China, leading the way?

The world has pretty much reached peak coal, with China’s contribution being crucial.

Still, there are greatly encouraging signs from China. China is now the world’s biggest solar and wind energy producer, with the government announcing plans to invest $360bn in renewable power by 2020. In 2015, they covered all their new electricity demand with renewables and overall, they hope to non-fossil fuels to 15 per cent or more by 2020. With the US U-turning on their environmental plans, China will become an unlikely leader — clearly showing that they understand the negative effect of climate change, unlike the US administration which is already infamous for climate change denial. In fact, China has sent repeated jabs towards Trump, saying that the world must tackle climate change, and there’s no sense in backtracking now.

Sure, China built their economy on coal which is the least eco-friendly source of electricity, and sure, they’re still a ways away from achieving a sustainable grid, but at the very least they acknowledging the problem and taking serious steps. For the first time in over a century, China’s coal consumption has dropped, and their economy has decoupled from coal consumption — which means that they can develop their economy while giving up on coal. This is the first major challenge for them — the second one will be also moving away from natural gas. Natural gas is not as bad as coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel greatly contributing to global warming. If China only shifts from coal to natural gas, they’ll just end up running into the same problems the US and Europe are facing. But if they keep up their massive investments, China can solidify their position as the emerging leader in fighting climate change. Just take a look at the difference in approach employed by the leaders of China and US respectively. Xi Jinping, China’s president, has adopted “ecological civilisation” as its slogan, while Donald Trump’s budget director has called efforts to combat climate change ‘waste of money’ and the entire cabinet is riddled with climate change deniers. It’s an interesting situation, counterintuitive when you consider how things were going a few years ago.

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China is just starting to truly tackle climate change, and they’ve much work to do. It’s not clear if they can Hopefully, they’ll rise up to the task.

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