China’s timeline to ditch coal, adopt green technology may be too slow to help climate

World leaders from more than 100 countries are in attendance at the U.N. Climate conference in Scotland. But China's Xi Jinping, president of the globe's largest polluter, is absent from the crowd. For any efforts to succeed in fighting climate change, China must be at the forefront. Reducing China's reliance on coal is key. Nick Schifrin and special correspondent Patrick Fok report.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Despite world leaders from more than 100 countries being in attendance at the U.N. climate conference, one significant figure is absent, China's Xi Jinping, president of the globe's largest polluting nation.

    Without China, efforts to fight China's reliance on coal is key.

    We have two looks now. In a moment, we will hear from special correspondent Patrick Fok in Northern China.

    But, first, here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In China, it is the best of times, and it is the worst of times. Beijing produces more solar power, more wind power, and more electric cars than any country in the world.

    But China also produces more greenhouse gases than the rest of the industrialized world combined.

  • Peter Ogden, United Nations Foundation:

    There's schizophrenia there that there is both an investment in the future in exactly the kind of technologies that are going to be needed to build a sustainable economic engine for their country, at the same time, clinging to some of the vestiges of the past.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pete Ogden is the vice president for energy and climate for the U.N. Foundation. He was President Obama's climate director when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, representing the world's two largest emitters, agreed to climate collaboration.

    That produced the 2015 Paris climate accords' pledge to reduce emissions enough to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Climate experts say Beijing has met its Paris promises. Beijing's poured billions into electric cars and the world's largest network of electric buses. By 2060, it hopes renewable energy provides 80 percent of the country's power.

    Beijing wanted to clean up notorious air pollution. But that wasn't the only motivation.

  • Joanna Lewis, Georgetown University:

    I think clean energy is not just about the environment. Clean energy is an economic strategy for the country, and we really see the government prioritizing clean energy industries as strategic to China's economy, to its overall economic transition.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Joanna Lewis directs Georgetown's Science, Technology and International Affairs Program and has studied China's climate policies for decades.

    She says Beijing believed green technology could help achieve long-term growth. And Xi Jinping wanted to be seen as a green leader. China pledges to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and peak all emissions before 2030.

    But U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry said this summer that 2030 is too late.

  • JOHN KERRY, U.S. Special Envoy For Climate Change:

    If China sticks with its current plan and does not peak its emissions until 2030, then the entire rest of the world would have to go to zero, zero by 2040 or even 2035.

    It knocks at least a decade off the timeline for the rest of the world to decarbonize. And that, my friends, sets a goal that currently is impossible to achieve.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week in Glasgow, Xi Jinping is a no-show, as are any new Chinese pledges or details on how it will achieve previous pledges, says Ogden.

  • PETE OGDEN:

    The Chinese announcement failed to include much that was really new. We just really need to see much more information about what they're going to take, how those steps are going to be taken in the near term.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Back at home, Beijing is taking backward steps by increasing, not decreasing, its reliance on coal. Greenpeace says, this year, provincial governments approved at least two dozen new coal plants. Coal still provides more than half the country's power.

  • Joanna Lewis:

    The reason why we do see China sticking with coal and just having a difficult time moving away from coal is because it is such a fundamental part of the economy.

    There are just very complex politics. It's a huge labor source for the country. These are obviously powerful companies in terms of setting policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Climate activists hailed Xi Jinping's September pledge not to fund new overseas coal plants. And Chinese domestic reliance on coal has dropped from a peak of 72 percent.

    But Beijing still requires coal to fuel its short-term growth. And that means Beijing's emissions could get worse before they get better.

  • Joanna Lewis:

    We cannot achieve these global climate goals unless China is able to reverse its emissions trends.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Chinese officials say their transition from coal will not be rushed. As one put it: You cannot ask a person to go on a climate diet while he is still starving.

    And Chinese coal has a legacy that goes back centuries even in the places going green.

  • Patrick Fok:

    This is Patrick Fok 150 miles west of Beijing in Northern China.

    As you approach by train, wind turbines stretch along the dry terrain for as far as the eye can see. But this is Datong, also known as China's coal capital. Coal mining here dates back around 1, 500 years. And as the country's economy opened up in the late 1970s, industrial mining took off, fueling China's boom.

  • Wang Hongwei, Former Coal Miner (through translator):

    : Conditions for workers today are much more comfortable than before. The work is not so tiring after mechanization. The underground environment is not so bad.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Wang Hongwei is a retired mine worker in his 60s, and part of several generations from Datong that have lived off the coal produced here. His son's followed in his footsteps.

    Shanxi province, where Datong is, has a total of around 950 mines, and, according to 2018 figures from the World Bank, employed close 900,000 people. As part of efforts to tackle climate change, China has taken offline some of its dirtiest coal-powered plants and sent workers to newer renewable energy efforts.

  • Wang Hongwei, (through translator):

    The mountains and fields are covered with solar power. It will definitely be better in the near future than it is now. The state will surely send its employees to other projects or factories. For those of us who are retired, it doesn't matter. We will just stay at home and get a state pension.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Still, those working the mines today aren't exactly fretting. As China struggles to shake off its coal addiction, there's no sign of the jobs drying up just yet.

    All over Datong, you can see China's massive efforts to switch to renewable energy. There are solar farms and wind turbines dotted all over the landscape here. And yet, at the same time, it is furiously ramping up coal production.

    In 2020 alone, the country brought 38.4 gigawatts of new coal-fired capacity into operation. That's more than three times the amount built in the rest of the world over the same period, and enough to power about a fifth of the whole country.

    Environmentalists like Li Shuo, who's a carbon emissions and energy specialist for Greenpeace, say China's insatiable demand for nonrenewable energy will make it difficult for it to meet its goal of net zero emissions by 2060.

  • Li Shuo, Greenpeace:

    If you really end up peaking, let's say, in 2030, the curve in between 2030 and 2060 is very steep, to the extent that many people will just think this is science fiction.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Last month, authorities also called on mines to boost coal production by nearly 100 million tons, as it battles a power crunch that's threatened to derail China's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

    President Xi Jinping pledged earlier this year that coal consumption would peak by 2025. But drastic reliance on the fuel source to meet energy demands has raised questions over whether he can stick to that promise.

  • Li Shuo:

    What will happen after the peak is as important as when the peak will happen. Are we going to see a long plateau? And, if so, that's probably not great news for climate change.

    Or are we seeing a steady decline or a drastic decline? I think the post-peaking period, either for coal consumption or for China's emissions, are also very important. There hasn't been a lot of discussion on that front.

  • Patrick Fok:

    And for the people of Datong, there's another discussion to be had about their livelihoods when the coal industry does one day crumble.

    For now, that day is nowhere near, as China's coal reliance continues.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Datong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I'm Nick Schifrin in Washington.

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