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Environmental policy experts discussed China’s energy policies during an event at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Monday.
The event featured Weila Gong, a Belfer Center postdoctoral research fellow, and Georgetown University professor Joanna I. Lewis, who discussed their joint research exploring China’s coal consumption, its pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and the political and economic factors hindering the country’s transition away from coal.
The event was jointly sponsored by the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, and the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability.
Lewis said China’s coal consumption, which outpaces most other countries, does not align with its stated clean energy goals and policies.
“This is sort of happening at a time where overall global trends are really seeing a decline in coal use globally,” she said. “Except in China and a handful of other emerging economies.”
Lewis described an array of political and economic obstacles that may contribute to China’s rising coal consumption.
“The coal industry is, of course, a massive employer in China–one of the largest employers in the country,” she said. “There’s a variety of local economic incentives to keep mining coal, keep running coal plants, in terms of how taxes are paid out.”
Gong said regions that depend heavily on coal for income may not benefit from the rise of renewable energy as much as other areas. She cited Shanxi province, which derives 40 percent of its income from the coal industry, as an example.
“Shanxi province produced over 1 billion tons of coal last year, which accounted for almost one-third of China’s national coal production that year,” Gong said. “The province is boasting a strategic route in defending China’s national security, energy security.”
Gong also said national security considerations in China’s energy policies mean that not all of the country’s coal plants may operate at full capacity.
“If you take a look at China’s National Energy Strategy, those coal power plants can be also used as a backup capacity,” Gong said.
Gong said her and Lewis’ research found that China's policies predominantly aim to hold coal consumption steady.
“Despite the increased attention on coal transition, we find that the Chinese government has still pretty much prioritized the coal maintenance strategy rather than a coal reduction strategy,” she said.
Gong and Lewis hypothesize that this misalignment is due to a lack of coordination between environment and economic interests in China’s policymaking process.
“China’s coal transition is not just about technology transformation. It’s also about social justice,” Gong said. “The national government have been able to provide a series of policy strategies and instruments to support the just transition.”
“The problem with that is it’s still primarily focused on helping those enterprises and less emphasized on coal workers and coal communities,” she added.
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