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China wants to go carbon neutral, but has no way to forcibly end its reliance on coal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Officials from all over the world, including the U.S. and China, will meet next month in Scotland at the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26. China will be a key player at the meeting. It wants to go carbon neutral in four decades, but it needs to stop using coal, which would hurt its economic growth. Whether the government can force companies into this trade-off is being decided in two landmark environmental cases in China. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China generates abundant solar and wind energy. The problem is storing that power. Then there's transporting it to the cities where it's needed. But the national grid has cheaper options like coal-fired power. This problem is called curtailment, and no one knows how much solar and wind power is going unused because of it. Here's Liu Jinmei, a lawyer at the Chinese environmental NGO Friends of Nature.

LIU JINMEI: (Through interpreter) A challenge is that we have no access to data on how much electricity is actually being wasted.

FENG: Here's an example. The province of Gansu and nearby region of Ningxia have a lot of sun and wind. But the grid operators there continue to use cheap coal-fired power even when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. So Liu and her fellow lawyers at Friends of Nature decided to sue.

LIU: (Through interpreter) We argued that the electricity that was abandoned was replaced by coal-generated sources, which in turn produced toxic gases in addition to greenhouse gas. This harmed public health, which gave us grounds for public interest litigation.

FENG: Liu then priced the social cost of burning coal by calculating that Gansu's grid operator alone had incurred about $260 million in damages by choosing coal power over renewables. In suing, Liu realized China's electrical grid cannot always respond to supply and demand.

LIU: (Through interpreter) The plan to purchase however much electricity each year is not set by the companies. It's the government that decides.

FENG: And this was precisely the defense Gansu and Ningxia grid operators used after Liu filed her two lawsuits. They argued they were simply buying power, and if the country really wanted to use more solar and wind energy, well, that wasn't something a local power grid could do by itself.

LIU: (Through interpreter) Electricity power lines need to be built to export the energy to other provinces, which is not something the company could manage.

FENG: China is on track to get about a fifth of its power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2025, up from a tenth now, but it's aiming to be totally carbon neutral by 2060. And to get there, renewable energy will need to be a far greater share of the energy mix. So Liu filed her cases in 2016, but the courts rejected them. Liu appealed, and this year she finally got to argue both cases in court. While she's been waiting, China has improved its power grids. Here's Lauri Myllyvirta, an air pollution and climate expert.

LAURI MYLLYVIRTA: The rate of wasted wind and solar has gone from well over 20% in Gansu and over 10% in Ningxia to less than 5%.

FENG: But China needs to quintuple the amount of wind and solar energy it uses.

MYLLYVIRTA: And the fact that, even at current rates, we're still seeing several percent of the total generation discarded is an indication that the grid is not ready yet.

FENG: There has been no judgment in the two court cases yet. So as China heads into major climate talks at COP26 this November, it still has no way to forcibly end its reliance on coal. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE AWAKENING OF A WOMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.