Renewables surge, coal rises and steel falls in 2021

Year-end economic data has revealed a Chinese economy rapidly expanding with renewable energy and new energy vehicles, while a number of carbon-intensive industries may finally be starting to retreat.

The data, released by the National Bureau of Statistics on 17 January, offers a look at the major economic trends in the first full year since China set its carbon neutrality targets in September 2020. 

On power generation, there was an enormous 29.8% increase of wind-generated power compared to 2020, a year which itself had seen an increase of 10.5% on 2019. The leap comes off the back of massive wind farm installations in 2020. Solar-generated power also grew by a sizeable 14.1% in 2021. Nuclear power, meanwhile, is seeing a small renaissance in China in the net zero era. With a number of new reactors coming online in 2021, nuclear power generation increased 11.3% compared to 2020.

The picture for coal, which still forms the backbone of China’s power sector, was more complex. Coal-generated power saw growth of 8.4%, much faster than in 2020. Domestic coal mining production and coal imports also saw significant growth of 4.7% and 6.6% respectively. The growth across the coal sector is a direct result of the government’s response to China’s power crisis in the last quarter of the year. In the power sector, China’s largest emitter of CO2, progress appears to be moving one step back for every two forward.

commentary written by the National Bureau of Statistics’ energy bureau chief, Hu Hanzhou, concluded that “energy supply has been guaranteed… [and] the development of a green and low carbon energy sector has seen solid progress.”

In the heavy industry sectors, major coal consumers steel and cement both saw rare declines in production in 2021. Crude steel and pig iron production declined by 3% and 4.3%, respectively, compared to 2020, a year that saw record output. The decline in steel production is the first since 2015 and offers hope China can get the bloated and massively polluting sector under control – essential for achieving its carbon emission targets. The decline in output was driven by a major slowdown in China’s property market and government caps on total output.

Another green sector which saw impressive growth was the production of new energy vehicles, which include electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and fuel cell vehicles. China produced a total of 36.8 million such vehicles, a jump of 145.6% on 2020. In contrast, output of internal combustion engine vehicles increased by around 6%.