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Global update

Why the Chinese love coal

Workers on a coal-laden freight train in Jiangxi Province. VCG/Getty

China, says Noah Smith on Substack. It’s already “the world’s green energy superpower”, leading the pack on electric vehicles, hydrogen power, wind turbines and everything else. It is set to add as much solar in one year as the US has done in its history. Yet China is also the world’s coal superpower, burning more of the dirty fossil fuel than every other country combined. This decision isn’t about cost – “building new solar plants is actually cheaper than continuing to run existing coal plants”. So why does Beijing do it? Why effectively choose to be the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide?

The answer is politics. The coal industry simply has enormous influence in China. Mining the stuff is extraordinarily lucrative: one producer, China Shenhua Energy, made $15.3bn in profit on $53.4bn of revenue last year, a margin “comparable to Apple’s”. Much of that cash will have lined the pockets of well-connected officials. Another factor is provincial governments. China’s coal production is clustered in poor northern provinces around Beijing – hollowing out the industry would exacerbate the divide between these regions and the rich coastal areas, and infuriate powerful local politicians. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are the workers. China’s coal industry employs a whopping six million people – 100 times as many as America’s – and supports the economies of entire cities. If there’s one thing Xi Jinping doesn’t want, “it’s millions of angry unemployed coal miners in the regions surrounding the capital city”.