China’s Energy Crisis Has Villagers Questioning Its Climate Path

Wang Yuan paced in front of the empty fireplace at his home in a village in the Chinese city of Tianjin, wondering where he was going to find wood and coal for the winter.

He hasn’t had to worry about buying fuel since 2017, when the government replaced his coal-fired stove with electric heat. But with a power crunch already causing outages in nearby northern provinces, Wang’s family group chat is abuzz with nervous plans about how to avoid freezing in the event of a blackout in the dead of winter.

That panic is being shared by millions as power to factories is being cut in nearly two-thirds of the country months before the onset of winter. On Weibo, a popular social media platform, topics on the power crunch have attracted tens of millions of views. People share how their life has been affected: no tap water, no cellphone service, no traffic lights, and a rush to buy candles.

Wang, 61, who’s spent his life farming rice and corn, says he doesn’t know what has caused the power shortage. But his son has passed along the rumors from the local steel mill where he works: it’s because of “environmental protection.”

It’s not just water-cooler talk. Local news, industry publications and social media have all placed at least some of the blame for the power crisis on the country’s increasingly strident steps toward tackling climate change. They’ve pointed to government policies such as the environment ministry’s plan to expand air pollution curbs to more cities and an intensifying campaign against cryptocurrency mining.

It’s a precarious time for the country’s climate proponents. China is about to release its blueprint for capping carbon emissions before 2030, which could determine the future economic outlook of entire industries and provinces. President Xi Jinping just announced plans to halt building overseas coal power plants and many expect at least one more major environmental announcement ahead of November’s key United Nations-backed talks in Glasgow. Doing so as people are without power at home could eat away at public support.

There’s some truth to the idea that power curbs and climate goals are connected. China hasn’t told provinces to reach peak emissions yet, but it has told them to burn fossil fuels more efficiently, a metric it measures in terms of energy use per unit of gross domestic product. In mid-August, the National Development and Reform Commission issued a report showing nine regions, including economic powerhouses such as Jiangsu, were failing. Those areas were told to proactively cut power to some industries in order to meet their targets.

But the real reason the country is on edge about power is a shortage of coal, which contributes more than two-thirds of China’s electricity generation. Power consumption in the country has been surging to meet the demands of the global economic recovery and mine output has been suppressed by safety inspections and capacity limitations. In northeast China, for example, where energy consumption and intensity are well on track to meet climate targets, the power crisis is so severe the government-backed water supply company has said that blackouts will happen “at any moment” and “without notice.”

“While energy consumption control targets likely play a role in some provinces, their role is being exaggerated to attack the climate policies,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “There is absolutely no reason why suddenly about every province decides that they have to cut power to meet this energy control targets, including those that are on track in the first half year.”

Since Xi pledged last September to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, the tension between the economy and climate has been simmering. Officials from major coal producer Inner Mongolia, for example, say that the region’s high emissions are inevitable given its role in driving China’s economic engine. Fossil fuel executives also argue that they are important in safeguarding China’s “national energy security” during events such this very power crisis.

“There are so many voices out there now made by different interest groups,” said Qin Yan, lead carbon analyst for Refinitiv. “Some people arguing for coal’s role to ‘secure energy’ forget the other side of the story, that coal is associated with so much risk now that it’s important for the power sector to move away from it.”

Exaggerating how climate policies worsened the power crunch could affect China’s efforts to win public support for its net zero campaign. Over-zealous efforts to clean up air pollution around Beijing in 2008 and an initiative to replace coal heaters in homes with gas and electricity in 2017 have led to rare bouts of public unrest from citizens discomfited by the changes.

Wang, for example, lost a coal furnace in the 2017 campaign and all the state-owned coal sellers have also disappeared. But he still has his fireplace and he’s planning to take matters into his own hands to procure some old-fashioned fuel for this winter. “If I have to choose between environmental protection and winter heating, of course, I choose the latter,” he said.

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