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Chinese Demand for Coal Surges, But Australia Remains Frozen Out 

FILE - In this photo taken on Nov. 19, 2015, smoke belches from a coal-fueled power station near Datong, in China's northern Shanxi province.

China’s output of coal increased to its highest level since at least March 2015 after authorities gave permission for mine expansions to boost supply and ease record prices. Chinese coal imports from Russia surged in September, but one of its traditional suppliers — Australia — remains frozen out of the lucrative trade because of diplomatic tensions.

China — the world’s leading consumer of coal — has an energy shortage triggered by strong demand from its manufacturers, industry and households.

The government in Beijing is determined to avoid more power cuts.

Since July, China has approved expansions at more than 150 coal mines, according to the National Development and Reform Commission. Figures from China’s National Bureau of Statistics showed domestic coal production exceeded 357 million tons in October, up from 334 million tons the previous month.

​Official customs data has also shown that China imported about 3.7 million tons of thermal coal from Russia — the main fuel for electricity generation — in September, up more than a quarter from August.

FILE - Coal is unloaded onto large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near the central New South Wales town of Mudgee in Australia, March 8, 2018.
FILE - Coal is unloaded onto large piles at the Ulan Coal mines near the central New South Wales town of Mudgee in Australia, March 8, 2018.

However, one of the world’s main coal producers — Australia — is noticeably absent from the list of nations shipping coal to China.

It was a prolific exporter of coal to China before an unofficial ban was imposed in late 2020 after Canberra supported calls for an international inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, the disease first detected in China. Beijing interpreted the move as criticism of its handling of the virus, and a range of trade restrictions were brought in.

China does have long term plans to slash its use of coal and fossil fuels.

Sam Geall from China Dialogue, an environmental policy group, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that China’s consumption of coal will oscillate to reflect domestic political necessities.

“There is room for hedging over the next five years that can allow kind of increased coal build up that would then need to be kind of ramped down again after 2025, and that speaks to this issue of the kind of push and pull that we see in the Chinese power sector with the recent black-outs and so on. It is difficult to just immediately, you know, turn the juggernaut around and there is a push and pull between different forces and different imperatives, including, you know, social stability, employment (and) keeping the lights on,” said Geall.

The increase in China’s coal production comes as India, supported by Beijing and other coal-dependent developing nations, brokered a last-minute amendment at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.

They managed to alter the final wording of the accord to “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of coal.