China Briefing, 17 June 2021: Overseas coal projects; Nuclear ‘leak’ report; Sustainable food production

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We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

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More than half of the overseas coal-fired power plants financed by China and announced between 2014 and 2020 have been shelved or cancelled, according to new analysis. The researchers found that only one out of the 52 planned projects has gone into operation. Meanwhile, another report said that “a wave of project cancellations has hit China-backed coal power investments” since 2017.


Separately, the security of a Chinese nuclear power plant has grabbed the attention of various news outlets. CNN first reported that the US government was assessing an alleged “leak” at the Taishan nuclear power plant. The network said a French company that helps operate the facility had warned the Biden administration of an “imminent radiological threat”. China has rejected the allegations, insisting that the plant’s safety “is guaranteed”.
Elsewhere, a study has found that China would be able to boost yields and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by switching to more sustainable production of soy and maize. Dr Giuliana Viglione, Carbon Brief’s food systems journalist, has more on the paper.

Key developments

Majority of China’s overseas coal projects ‘shelved or cancelled’

WHAT: Two reports – both published on Wednesday – have looked at the progress of China-financed overseas coal-fired power plants. The first report was written by the Beijing-based International Institute of Green Finance (IIGF). It found that more than half of those projects had been shelved or cancelled over the past six years, said Bloomberg. The second report, penned by the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), said the amount of capacity shelved or cancelled since 2017 was 4.5 times the amount that had gone into construction, Reuters wrote. 

WHERE: IIGF’s report assessed the coal-fired power plants in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a £100bn global infrastructure development strategy. It found that, out of the 52 projects with Chinese financing announced between mid-2014 and the end of 2020, only one power station – situated in Bangladesh – had gone into operation, Bloomberg said. The countries with the most projects cancelled were Zimbabwe and Russia, the newswire wrote. 

WHO: CREA said that the Top 10 banks involved in global coal financing since 2016 – the year when China joined the Paris Agreement – were all Chinese banks, reported Reuters. According to its analysis, they included the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and China CITIC Bank. Citing the research, Reuters added that around 12% of all coal plants operating outside of China could be linked to Chinese banks, utilities, equipment manufacturers and construction firms. 

HOW: The failure of coal in China’s BRI may have been driven by the “increasing competitiveness” of solar and wind power and the growing cost of coal-fired projects in the past decade, IIGF noted. CREA attributed the cancellations to “weakening economic competitiveness of coal” and public concerns over the fossil fuel’s environmental and social impacts. Existing overcapacity in recipient countries might also be a cause, it added. 

WHY IT MATTERS: Around 70% of the coal plants built globally now rely on Chinese funding, according to an article in the Conversation. Environmental groups and experts have been urging China to stop financing coal projects to tackle climate change. Dr Christoph Nedopil, director of the IIGF Green BRI Center, tells Carbon Brief that the finding of his institute’s report “ideally” means that “green action is following green announcements for the BRI [such as this speech by President Xi] and coal investments are de-facto decreasing”. IIGF and CREA’s reports came four days after a “global, climate-friendly infrastructure programme” called “Build Back Better World” (B3W) was unveiled at the G7 summit to rival China’s BRI. Dr Nedopil says the B3W has the potential to support “a much-needed green transition in emerging economies”. But he highlights the importance of it working with China because – as he states – China is the largest investor in many of those countries and has “relevant technical capabilities”.

Report of ‘leak’ in Chinese nuclear plant grabs attention

WHAT: CNN said in an “exclusive” that the US government was assessing a reported “leak” at the Taishan nuclear power plant. CNN cited unnamed US officials and documents it had reviewed. It said that the US government had been warned of an “imminent radiological threat” by a French company that helps operate the plant. It added that the Biden administration believed the plant was not yet at a “crisis level”. China has rejected the allegations after speculation surrounding the issue dominated the press this week. 

WHERE: Taishan nuclear power plant, a joint venture between China and France, is situated in Taishan in southern China’s Guangdong province. It is about 90 miles from Hong Kong and 50 miles from Macau. According to its operator’s website, the plant uses two 1,750 megawatt (MW) European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs) from France, with four more due to come. It adds that the plant is the largest collaboration between China and France in the energy sector. China’s President Xi Jinping and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron marked the completion of Taishan’s first EPR in January 2018. The device is reported to be the world’s first EPR to go into operation. Two more are being built at Hinkley Point in southwest England.

WHO: According to CNN, the issue emerged after Framatome, the French company, had informed the US Department of Energy of a potential problem at the Taishan facility and formally requested “assistance” between late May and early June. Then, unidentified US officials revealed the information to the news channel, it said. Framatome is affiliated with Électricité de France (EDF), which owns 30% of the Taishan plant’s operator, Taishan Nuclear Plant Joint Venture Company (TNPJVC). China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN), China’s largest state-owned nuclear company, owns the rest.

WHEN: CNN broke the story on Monday. A day earlier, the TNPJVC had published a statement maintaining that the environmental readings at the plant and in the surrounding areas were “normal”. TNPJVC said it was responding to enquiries from “some organisations and media outlets”. Also on Monday, EDF said in a statement that it had been aware of “the increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit of reactor n°1 [number one]”. It said that the build-up of the gases was “a known phenomenon, studied and provided for in the reactor operating procedures”. It said it had contacted the plant’s operator. Framatome announced the same day it was supporting the resolution of “a performance issue”. It noted that the plant was operating “within the safety parameters”.

CHINA’S RESPONSE: On Tuesday, China said that there was “no abnormality in the radiation environment” around the plant, said CNN in a follow-up report. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a press briefing that the plant’s safety was “guaranteed”, the news outlet adds. On Wednesday, China’s National Nuclear Safety Administration (NNSA) – an affiliation with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment – said that five out of the 60,000 fuel rods in reactor number one had likely sustained damage, leading to the detection of an increased level of radioactivity in the coolant of its primary circuit. It added that the increased level was within the “permissible range for stable operation specified in the nuclear power plant operating technical specifications”. The NNSA also denied having raised the “acceptable limits” of the radiation detection outside the plant – an allegation from Framatome based on French standards, according to CNN.  

WHY IT MATTERS: A US-based Chinese nuclear scientist told Reuters that Framatome might have contacted the US government to ask for a waiver to allow it to help CGN, the plant’s majority Chinese owner, fix technological problems. In August 2019, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted CGN, reported CNBC at the time. The US said the firm and its subsidiaries allegedly “engaged in or enabled efforts to acquire advanced US nuclear technology and material for diversion to military uses in China”, the outlet added. China called the decision a “misuse” of export controls, according to Reuters.

Other news

FOOD SYSTEM: A new paper has found that converting some of the land in China from maize to soy and implementing a set of more sustainable farming practices would cut both greenhouse gas emissions and fertiliser use by 2035, Carbon Brief reported this week. One researcher not involved in the study called the fertiliser-reducing approaches “massive low-hanging fruit” for a more sustainable food system, adding that it is a “win-win-win scenario”. 

POWER SHORTAGE: The electricity shortages in southern China – which has gone on since mid-late May – have “greatly eased”, reported China News Service. The state news agency cited comments from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the macroeconomic planner, at a press conference on Thursday. The report said that Guangdong Province had stopped rationing power since 5 June while Yunnan province was gradually reducing its rationing. It stated that the situation would improve further due to increased hydropower output during the flood season.

STEEL OUTPUT: China’s demand for crude steel “will still have some room for growth” from now until 2025 due to the “continuous new development and new result” of the country’s economic growth, reported state-run China Economic Net, citing the NDRC. On Thursday, a spokesperson from the NDRC said that China would continue to crack down on unauthorised “dual-high” projects – those with “high” energy consumption and “high” emissions – and control steel production capacity. 

RENEWABLE ENERGY: “New energy” vehicles will dominate China’s auto market within 10 years, reported CNBC, citing executives from two major Chinese electric car companies. Speaking at a forum over the weekend, BYD’s founder, Wang Chuanfu, predicted that “new energy” vehicles would account for 70% of all new cars sold in China by 2030, the report said. William Li – founder of Chinese car manufacturer Nio – expected a higher penetration rate of 90%, it added. In China, “new energy” vehicles primarily include pure electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. 

5G: Four Chinese authorities have instructed regional governments and state-owned companies to “actively promote” the application of 5G in the energy sector, reported state-run People’s Daily. The directive orders local officials and entrepreneurs to establish a series of “typical application scenarios” for 5G – such as “smart” electricity factories, electrical grids and coal mines – in the next three to five years, the publication explained. 

CARBON EMISSIONS: Liu Guiping, the deputy governor of China’s central bank, said last Thursday that the pressure for the nation to reduce its carbon emissions “will grow in the future” due to its “significant room for growth” in per-capita energy demand, according to Reuters. Liu noted that it “will be difficult” for China’s carbon emissions to “drop sharply” after reaching a peak, the newswire adds. He is also quoted saying China’s economy would maintain a medium-to-high rate of growth for a relatively long period of time.

Extra reading

New science

Simulation of social resilience affected by extreme events in ancient China
Climatic Change

New research identifies historical extreme events and “analyses their impacts on social vulnerability, stability and resilience in ancient China”. The authors find that “historical extreme events had cyclic and periodic fluctuations, and usually led to cascade disasters”. These cascade disasters “enhanced risk and greatly reduced societal stability”, the paper says – for example, a flood or drought could lead to famine, then conflict (such as an uprising or invasion) and then epidemic plagues. The study notes that a “quick response to disasters, efficient disaster relief systems, and sufficient food supplies were essential parts of social resilience to disasters”.

Changes in China’s anthropogenic emissions and air quality during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020
Earth System Science Data

A new paper presents data on China’s human-caused emissions during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 – focusing predominantly on air quality. Using near-real-time data and a chemical transport model, the researchers estimate that the lockdown “reduced China’s anthropogenic emissions substantially between January and March in 2020, with the largest reductions in February”. The authors also find that “China’s anthropogenic emissions rebounded in April and since then returned to the comparable levels of 2019 in the second half of 2020”.

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