Interview. ‘Last year, China produced 3.9 billion tons of coal, and this year production is expected to increase even further.’

Will China ever get rid of coal? We asked geologist Li Haibing

Governments’ forecasts of coal, oil and gas production for 2030 are still more than double the levels compatible with limiting global warming to +1.5 degrees Celsius: the UN recently published these figures, underlining that in order to hope to stay within the target of the Paris Agreement, it would be necessary to immediately limit the global production of fossil fuels.

Instead, global plans call for an increase. But will China, for instance, ever get rid of coal? We asked a few questions to Li Haibing, a well-known Chinese researcher of tectonic geology, scholar of the sliding fault of the Qinghai Tibetan plateau, expert in earthquake physics, but also in the relationship between earthquakes, oil and gas.

We talked with him about COP 15 in Kunnming (China), on the topic of biodiversity at risk, which is the situation for the entire planet. In that official context, in his opening speech, the Chinese president Xi Jinping, who gave Haibing several awards as a national talent, declared that China would take the lead on the issue and will contribute 1.5 billion yuan to the establishment of the Biodiversity Fund.

Can you explain what emerged from this COP 15, linked to the topics of the Cop26 that will begin soon in Glasgow? 

Over the last few days, many leaders have highlighted, with clear data in hand, the intrinsic relationship between the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis; it was an important opportunity to address both issues, which are currently burning issues, through joint actions directed towards the work in Glasgow. President Macron called on everyone to ensure that 30% of climate funds are used to support biodiversity; then, Gavin Edwards, coordinator of the New Deal for Nature and People for WWF International, said that subsidies for destructive agricultural practices must be eliminated. This sounds like empty talk, but it is about the lives of all of us, and it is perhaps the first time that this is being addressed here, and the first time it is being felt as urgent as now.

However, it’s very complicated to change things: more than 50% of energy comes from coal and the most important industrial groups on the combustion of fossils has its interests here. So yes, it is essential that every leader should intensify their efforts and that the global biodiversity framework is implemented, year after year, up to the 2030 and then 2050 milestones, but China’s efforts should start now (and we’re already late). The COP26 for climate in Glasgow and the COP15 for biodiversity are two key moments to seriously design a fair future with zero net emissions.

Do you think it is really possible by 2030?

Something will be achieved in every part of the world. The problem is to orient these measures in a healthy, socially sustainable way. The Chinese blackout of recent days, although it arose with the good intentions of rationing electricity due to the unsustainable pollution, is creating panic in the productive sector, certainly not to the detriment of large multinationals, but to the detriment of the workers – thus, the families. At the moment, it is the Chinese Rust Belt region in the north-east that is suffering the most. To mention just a small aspect, in Shenyang, a city in Liaoning province, traffic signals have stopped working, causing congestion. In Jilin province, the city’s water supply has been unstable, and officials have urged citizens to stock up on water. The main reason for the electricity shortage is the decline in operations at coal-fired power plants. The price of coal has risen by more than 30% compared to the previous year, forcing the power plants to reduce energy production.

President Xi Jinping has pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. On one hand, local government efforts to achieve these goals are in place, but at the expense of the weaker classes; and on the other hand, the measures are also being heavily violated. What do you think? Don’t you get the impression that the Chinese Government is lying in the run-up to COP 26?

I’m not going to answer if you put it like that; but as a scientist, with data in hand and without any prejudices and judgments, I can tell you that last year, China produced 3.9 billion tons of coal, and this year production is expected to increase even further.

After Beijing’s announcement, COP26 seems to be heading for yet another failure. Among the 10 countries responsible for most emissions since 1850, only four have announced more ambitious reduction targets. China, Russia, India, Japan, Indonesia and Brazil have all failed to present satisfactory plans. In this sense, it is also difficult to imagine COP 15 having serious and concrete objectives.

In the meantime, the world is watching, and this certainly cannot be ignored by the Chinese government. China will be key to the talks not just on biodiversity, but on the whole of global climate change. Unfortunately, COP26 chairman Alok Sharma said that the Chinese president’s intentions at the moment are still very doubtful. We scientists can only say that the environment needs China to give it a hand, but it is the Chinese citizens themselves who want it. Every day, 4,000 more Chinese people fall victim to serious illnesses because of climate-altering emissions.

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