China’s declining coal industry got a boost on the weekend when Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a “realistic” approach to achieving the country’s carbon neutrality goals. Addressing deputies from the coal-rich Inner Mongolia region on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress on Saturday, Xi said China’s green transition could not be achieved overnight and its coal-dominated energy structure was unlikely to change fundamentally in the short term. “We can’t be detached from reality … We can’t toss away what’s feeding us now while what will feed us next is still not in our pocket,” Xi was quoted as saying by state-run People’s Daily. “To achieve the ‘dual carbon’ targets , [we] must proceed from national conditions and seek steady progress.” Xi was referring to targets he announced in September 2020 for the nation to reach peak carbon emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. At COP26, China would not agree to phase out coal – why? China is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal. Over the past decade, it lowered the share of coal use in its energy mix from 68 per cent to 56.8 per cent. But the fossil fuel still plays a major role in the power sector, generating 64 per cent of its electricity. Coal’s contribution was underlined last year when China’s output of the fuel hit a record 4.07 billion tonnes, a year-on-year increase of 4.7 per cent. China increased coal production after the country was hit by a power crunch in August that affected more than 20 provinces and lasted for months. Since then there have been signs of a political shift on coal, with many top Chinese officials highlighting the significance of the fuel to energy security. During an inspection to the eastern province of Shandong in October, Xi told local authorities that China “must hold our energy supplies firmly in our own hands”. And just last week, Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who is also the head of the leading group on carbon peak and carbon neutrality, stressed the need to promote the clean and efficient utilisation of coal and its role in the energy structure. All this comes as oil and gas prices surge to historic levels in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Yang Fuqiang, a researcher with Peking University’s Institute of Energy, said it was understandable that Xi emphasised energy security now. “Not only China, but the whole world consumed more fossil fuels last year because of the economic rebound,” Yang said. “Meanwhile, the war between Russia and Ukraine also increases the risk to energy supply as Russia is a major player of the Opec Plus bloc,” he said, referring to a group of non-Opec countries that export crude oil. “It’s understandable that Xi underscored ensuring energy security in achieving its climate targets under this circumstance.” Zhuang Guiyang, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the power and coal shortages in many parts of China last year had reaffirmed coal’s importance in the energy system. “Although there is a lot of pressure from the international community to phase out coal, the one-size-fits-all approach [to phase out the fuel] will have a greater impact on the safe, reliable and stable supply of energy and electricity,” Zhuang wrote in a commentary in February in state-run China Youth Daily . The shifting policy resulted in China ramping up coal power capacity last year. A study, published last month by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki and Global Energy Monitor in San Francisco, found that work had started on 33 gigawatts of new coal power plants in 2021, “the most since 2016”.