China Briefing, 20 May 2021: Emissions growth fastest in a decade; Xinjiang plant refutes ‘forced labour’ claims; Regions urged to cut energy use

China Briefing, 20 May 2021: Emissions growth fastest in a decade; Xinjiang plant refutes ‘forced labour’ claims; Regions urged to cut energy use

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s China weekly digest. 
We handpick and explain the most important climate and energy stories from China over the past seven days.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s weekly China Briefing email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Snapshot

The growth rate of China’s carbon emissions in the first quarter of 2021 was the fastest year-on-year in more than a decade, according to a new analysis published by Carbon Brief. The surge followed a sharp emissions drop in China last year due to Covid-19, says the report. China’s post-pandemic economic rebound more than made up for that decline, pushing emissions to a new record high.

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The findings came after seven Chinese regions were called out by China’s state planner after their energy intensity – energy use per unit of GDP – had increased rather than fallen. The authorities “reminded” relevant officials that they must hit their energy-control targets.

Separately, a Xinjiang solar firm has allowed “foreign media” to visit its facilities after China was accused of using Uighur “forced labour” in the sector. It came as John Kerry said that the Biden administration was mulling sanctions against the Chinese solar industry. Kerry cited claims of “forced labour” in Xinjiang as a reason – allegations Beijing firmly denies.

Key developments

Seven regions called out for failing to curb energy use

WHAT: Seven Chinese regions were “reminded” of their energy-control targets after their energy intensity – the energy use per unit of GDP – increased in the first quarter of this year, financial outlet Caixin reported. 

WHEN: Caixin said that the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the state macroeconomics planner, called officials from those regions to a video meeting last Thursday.

WHERE: The seven regions include four provinces and three autonomous regions, according to a release from the NDRC. The four provinces are Zhejiang, Guangdong, Yunnan and Qinghai. The three autonomous regions are the Guangxi Zhuang, Ningxia Hui and Xinjiang Uighur.

WHO: Liu Dechun, director of environmental protection and resource conservation at the NDRC, demanded that relevant officials “resolutely” take down “dual-high” projects “that don’t meet requirements”, state news agency Xinhua reported. Liu also urged them to “further strengthen” their “dual-control” works – the control of energy consumption and energy intensity – and ensure they meet their annual targets.

WHY IT MATTERS: Liu’s orders were a repeat of the official instructions issued by president Xi Jinping at a top-level political meeting last month, signalling the central government’s determination to regulate energy use as part of its efforts to peak emissions before 2030. However, China’s post-pandemic economic rebound has also led to high emissions growth and crude steel output. Today, Carbon Brief published new analysis showing that the nation’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased by 15% year-on-year in the first quarter of this year. Meanwhile, China’s crude steel output hit an “all-time high” in April, reaching 97.85m tonnes, said Reuters

Xinjiang’s Daqo plant opens doors to counter ‘forced labour’ claims

WHAT: Daqo New Energy, a Nasdaq-listed company, has allowed foreign journalists to visit its factory in Xinjiang in an effort to rebut allegations that China uses Uighur “forced labour” in its solar industry, according to Bloomberg. The news agency published a series of reports (here, here and here) over the weekend about its tour. The Financial Times also wrote about its experience at Daqo.   

WHERE: Daqo’s plant is situated outside the city of Shihezi in northern Xinjiang. The company is a major manufacturer of polysilicon, a key ingredient in solar panels. According to the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, Daqo’s factory produces 80,000 tonnes of polysilicon a year and is expanding.  

WHEN: According to a company release, Daqo hosted one “field trip” on 11 May and another the following day. Various media, industry analysts and institutional investors joined the tour, it added.  

WHO: Daqo’s chief financial officer, Ming Yang, told Bloomberg that Daqo had never participated in any of China’s “labour-transfer” programmes – state-led schemes that have been accused of using “forced labour”. 

HOW: The Daqo tour followed reports alleging the human rights issue in Xinjiang’s solar industry. For example, one US research firm linked Xinjiang’s solar energy technology sector to the “labour-transfer” programmes, reported the New York Times in January. Last week, a UK investigation, picked up by BBC News and CNN, accused China of using “forced labour” to make solar panels. China has repeatedly denied all allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

WHY IT MATTERS: Solar technology is a key industry of China and the Biden administration is weighing sanctions against it. A previous Bloomberg report stated that Xinjiang supplies nearly half the global raw material used to make solar panels. John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, told US lawmakers last week that “solar panels that we believe in some cases are being produced by forced labour” were “a problem”, reported AP. In response, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the “forced labour” claims “a big lie” and accused “a few countries led by the US” of “extending their black hands to China’s solar power industry”.

Other news

NUCLEAR: China and Russia kick-started a joint nuclear power project on Wednesday, reported Beijing’s state news agency Xinhua. The project, estimated to cost more than £11bn, will see four Russian nuclear reactors – described as “advanced” – to be built in two plants in eastern China, state-affiliated Jiemian News said. State broadcaster CCTV released a video of a virtual “groundbreaking ceremony” attended by presidents Xi and Putin.

CARBON MARKET: The development of China’s national emissions trading scheme (ETS) is in its final “sprinting stage”, yicai.com reported. The Shanghai-based financial website said the Ministry of Ecology and Environment had released three sets of regulations simultaneously on Wednesday to set rules on the scheme’s registration, trading and settlement activities. The ETS is set to begin trading by the end of June.

FASTER PLANNING: On Tuesday, China’s NDRC said that it was accelerating the formulation of “top-level planning” to help the country achieve its climate targets, reported Xinhua. Yesterday, the Economic Information Daily – an outlet affiliated with Xinhua – reported that China was formulating a policy framework known as “1+N” to help it peak carbon emissions before 2030.

LITHIUM: The Global Times focused on Chinese EV firms’ interest in South America for its lithium reserves. The official newspaper said one company in Jiangxi was mulling over a battery assembly plant in Argentina. It added that another firm in Jiangsu had decided to make EVs and lithium batteries in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile.

MORE COOPERATION: An official from the NDRC said China would “actively” seek to “restore” and “rebuild some cooperation mechanisms” with the US over climate issues, according to state-run chinanews.com. Gao Jian, a department deputy director at the NDRC, called on more Chinese and US firms to “participate in China’s green, low-carbon development” at a roundtable meeting.

CENTRAL INSPECTION: Xinhua reported last Thursday that China’s top-level environmental inspection team had held “844 officials and cadres accountable” for various issues found during the latest round of national investigation. Xinhua said the inspectors had probed eight provinces between 6 April and 9 May. (See Carbon Brief’s Q&A about the significance of these inspections.)

Extra reading

New science

China’s climate ambition: Revisiting its First Nationally Determined Contribution and centering a just transition to clean energy
Energy Policy

A new study has revisited China’s first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), submitted in 2016, and analysed it against the country’s emission-controlling efforts since. The research finds that China must “significantly increase” its climate ambition, particularly in light of the expected submission of its second NDC and the potential for updated targets. The authors, from the Colby College in the US, tell Carbon Brief: “While China is set to meet its NDC targets, they are not in line with the Paris [Agreement’s] 2C or 1.5C warming targets.” The study also pinpoints several factors shaping China’s climate action and the barriers to greater ambition, including a “carbon-intensive” economic focus.

Two-tier synergic governance of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in China’s megacity, Shenzhen: Impact evaluation and policy implication
Environmental Science and Technology

According to new research, large populous cities should implement a two-tiered “synergic governance system” to pursue a “sustainable future”. The paper suggests that “megacities” should reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and air pollutants simultaneously, both within the cities and in their surrounding regions. The researchers analysed the climate governance system of China’s Shenzhen, which is nearly three times the size of New York City and home to more than 17m residents. The analysis also finds that city governors should prioritise their sustainable efforts in road transportation and power generation and supply while conducting the two-tiered method. 

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