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China Wins UN Environment Awards, Fires Up Coal Plant Production

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China is full of contradictions, something that often becomes apparent when discussing the country’s environmental situation.

It’s the world’s biggest polluter, yet also one of the leading developers of green technologies. China produces and uses around two-thirds of the world’s electric cars and is creating an infrastructure to support them, yet about 80% of the country’s electricity comes from coal. Such contradictions have been in the news the last few days after thanks to CoalSwarm and the United Nations.

In late September, it was reported that local governments were building more coal-powered electricity plants in the country, supposedly without the knowledge or express permission of the central authorities. Environment-focused site ChinaDialogue stated last week that

This blog reported last month that China was building 46 gigawatts of coal power that had been shelved or suspended, and which was discovered by CoalSwarm through an analysis of satellite imagery.

The new estimate by CoalSwarm takes the 46 gigawatts found by satellite imagery and adds other projects in the pre-construction/construction phase, as well as 57 gigawatts of shelved projects that seem likely to go online in the near future.

[…] China’s coal power capacity already stands at 993 gigawatts, leading CoalSwarm to warn that the sector’s resurgence is wildly out of line with the Paris Agreement, which commits countries to limiting the average global temperature rise from climate change by 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period.

According to Quartz, this production is taking place “in defiance” of central government.

It’s certainly not been the message that official State media platforms have been pushing in recent days when it comes to the environment. Instead, they’ve been trumpeting the eastern city of Xuzhou’s winning of a United Nations “Scroll of Honor”:

While the United Nations has also been heaping praise on Zhejiang Province’s “Green Rural Revival Programme”, recognizing those responsible as “Champions of the Earth”, the UN’s “highest environmental honour”:

So is China an eco-friendly pioneer or an environment-threatening polluter? Well, like so many of the country’s other apparent contradictions, there’s evidence for both — that’s what happens when you try and make generalizations about such a huge country. Things have come a long way on the environmental front since authorities in the country’s southwest literally green-washed a mountainside, but it’s also clear there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Cover image: Endcoal satellite image showing apparent coal plant production in China.

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