REPEATED POWER BLACKOUTS are a sign of misfiring economic management that does not reflect well on governments. Electricity shortages have hit many regions of China over the past month, affecting manufacturing, traffic and street lighting, and homes, often without warning. Sixteen out of 31 provinces have begun rationing electricity, and the northeast faces the prospect of power cuts running through the winter.
The power shortages are the consequence of a combination of contradictory policies: moves to improve energy efficiency and cut consumption in support of carbon reduction goals, and fitful reform of the largely coal-fired power generation sector where long-standing subsidies and price controls cannot withstand the rise in global coal prices, leaving power plants short on fuel.
Provinces’ implementation of obligatory emission-reduction targets imposed on them by central government has been haphazard, varying from draconian to lax. In addition, the 3% reduction target for energy intensity for 2021 has also got ahead of the planning process.
The 14th five-year plan (2021-25) mandates targets for improving energy intensity (energy consumption per unit of GDP) and reducing CO2 emissions per unit of GDP. There is also a binding minimum target for the domestic energy supply from all sources of 4.6 billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent (versus 4.86 billion in 2019), but no caps on carbon emissions and coal consumption, and only an aspirational goal to increase the share of non-fossil-fuels in total energy consumption.
The 14th Five-Year Plan for Energy, likely to be published around or after the COP26 summit in Scotland in November, will provide provincial and municipal governments with a more detailed road map. However, that will cover the years through to 2025 and not show the full path to the 2060 net carbon neutrality target date. However, until they have that road map, Chinese and foreign firms operating in China will delay drawing up the emissions reduction strategies that are likely to be required.
The current energy intensity target has also run headlong into China’s infrastructure-investment pandemic stimulus and export- and industry-driven recovery. Factories have put filling orders now, with the consequent surge in demand for power, ahead of improving their energy efficiency.
Last year, primary energy consumption rose 2.1%, coal consumption 0.6% and carbon emissions 0.3%, whereas energy consumption and emissions declined in almost every other economy. The trends have accelerated into 2021.
Beijing is now having to arrange emergency coal supplies for fuel-short provinces and marshall the distribution grid for inter-provincial power-sharing.
The power situation illustrates the costs Beijing will have to shoulder politically and economically if President Xi Jinping’s decarbonisation goals are to be met, and more generally in structurally changing the economy for the next phase of economic development.
Achieving both will mean slower growth, which will have political as well as economic management dimensions. All but the wealthiest provinces are still industrialising, reliant on energy-intensive infrastructure and industries for growth and jobs, and remain fossil-fuel dependent. Xi has also set a goal of doubling the economy over the next quarter-century, implying 4% annual growth.
Yet even with modest growth rates reducing energy demand, technological advances in energy efficiency and the fledgling national carbon trading market taking wing, it will still require rigorous enforcement of central government policies to change the country’s energy mix to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels. As the efforts to impose energy intensity standards are now showing, provincial and local officials will readily foot drag or worse in implementing Beijing’s policies when it is in their interests to do so.
As with many aspects of rebalancing, the tight networking of local officials and local industries provides inherent resistance to policy direction from the centre. This is exacerbated by many of the major players in energy, including the oil companies, major power generators, the two grid companies and industrial consumers such as steel and cement manufacturers, are state-owned enterprises with size and political influence, especially at the local level.
China is far from alone in having to deal with the conflicting tensions between climate mitigation measures and jobs and economic growth. Beijing has prioritised the former of late, but continuing to do will require sufficient political will at high enough levels of the leadership. That will continue to exist until it does not because the political calculations have changed.