China’s recent surge in coal imports has cast a shadow of doubt over its professed commitment to combating climate change and achieving net-zero emissions. Despite public pledges to adhere to the principles of Agenda 21 and transition towards a more sustainable future, the stark reality of China’s actions paints a contrasting picture. The country’s escalating demand for coal, a fossil fuel at odds with environmental sustainability, raises serious questions about the authenticity of its climate change rhetoric.
In December 2023, China set a new record in coal imports, a move that starkly contradicts its promises to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The year witnessed a 61.8% increase in coal imports compared to the previous year, reaching an unprecedented total of 474.42 million tons. This surge was driven by a combination of factors, including the economic rebound following the COVID-19 pandemic, increased domestic coal prices, and declining coal quality within China. Additionally, an unexpected and severe cold wave across many regions of the country spurred an increased demand for coal to meet energy needs.
China’s decision last month to reinstate coal import tariffs of 3%-6% on countries without bilateral free trade agreements further complicates the situation. This move, largely affecting key suppliers like Mongolia and Russia, seems to be a strategic effort to regulate the coal market. However, traders have noted that these tariffs are unlikely to negate the cost advantages of imported coal, implying that China’s dependence on foreign coal is likely to persist.
The growing reliance on Mongolian coal is particularly noteworthy. In 2023, China’s imports of Mongolian coking coal more than doubled, and this trend is expected to continue into 2024. The shift toward Mongolian coal has been facilitated by improvements in transportation infrastructure and its competitive pricing. The geopolitical rift with Australia, previously a major supplier of coking coal to China, has also played a role in this strategic pivot. Enhanced road links, streamlined customs procedures, and collaborative government efforts between China and Mongolia have been instrumental in boosting the coal trade.
The stark contrast between China’s public stance on climate change and its actual energy policies is becoming increasingly evident. While the nation has made strides in renewable energy development and set ambitious carbon neutrality goals for 2060, its actions in the coal sector suggest a different priority. The resurgence of coal usage, seen as a more reliable source of energy compared to intermittent renewable sources, indicates a willingness to prioritize short-term economic stability over long-term environmental sustainability.
This dichotomy is further highlighted by the international community’s scrutiny of China’s environmental commitments. Critics argue that China’s climate change discourse may serve as a façade to conceal its broader geopolitical ambitions. This perspective suggests that China’s pursuit of regional dominance and global influence may supersede its dedication to environmental initiatives. The country’s struggle to balance economic growth with emission reductions raises doubts about the sincerity of its commitment to the global fight against climate change.
The visit of John Kerry, the US special envoy on climate, to Beijing underscores the importance to the Biden Administration of international cooperation in addressing climate issues. However, it also brings to the forefront the question of whether China can truly prioritize climate action, especially when it conflicts with economic and geopolitical interests.
As China continues to grapple with its economic recovery and energy needs, the future of its coal import strategy and its alignment with climate goals remains uncertain. The potential increase in renewable energy production could signify a shift towards a greener economy. Yet, the ongoing reliance on coal, especially from sources like Mongolia, suggests a more complex reality. The actions China takes in the coming years will be pivotal in determining the credibility of its climate commitments and the overall success of global efforts to mitigate climate change.
Yes, China has been two-faced in its actions on climate change vs its internal energy security, and it is doubtful they are serious. John Kerry is an idiot to be easily placated with false promises. But they may eventually lead the way in the developing world, given that at this point renewable energy is much more expensive than coal, and their energy expenditures could provide greater wealth with coal than with renewable sources. This is the paradox.