The cuts in coal production at the end of 2016, perhaps to meet winter air pollution targets, were clearly not sustainable. Apart from that, you can’t see a clear rising trend. Production was apparently cut again in the autumn after a series of mine disasters, which the leadership did not want repeated during the 19th Party Congress in October.
My speculation in this. The quinquennial Party Congress absorbed Xi Jinping’s full attention for much of the year: he spent his time on politics not policy, creating temporary space for the coal lobby to cash in while the going was good. In addition to the usual personnel changes to entrench supporters and marginalize adversaries, Xi secured the inclusion of his Thought in the Party Constitution under his own name, an honour awarded to no other Chinese leader since Mao and (posthumously) Deng. His position is now unchallengeable. The downside of such power is that unlike Trump, Xi has nobody else to blame when things go wrong. So what does he want to do? Does he want to go down in history as the Green Emperor?
It’s not at all clear, but it is possible. A nugget from Xi’s Castro-length speech:
Xi declared that the “principal contradiction” facing China’s socialist society has evolved. In the past, the contradiction was between “the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production.” Now, it is between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life,” Xi said.
Stripped of the Hegelian ormolu, this actually makes a lot of sense. It’s seen as a key point: his change has been added to the Party Constitution (pdf, page 3).
In addition, this document, on top of six mentions of the environment, has this interesting change, surely at his instigation (page 4, my emphasis):
The basic line of the Communist Party of China in the primary stage of socialism is to lead all the people of China together in a self-reliant and pioneering effort, making economic development the central task, upholding the Four Cardinal Principles, and remaining committed to reform and opening up, so as to see China becomes a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.
Other leaders please copy.
You don’t need to rely on Kremlinology to think that Xi will pursue the energy transition out of political self-interest: air pollution is a threat to the Party’s rule, and his. He now has no reason to go slow and far less need to make compromise with coal barons and their friends in provincial governments. Their cities will be beautiful, or else. China installed 64 GW of renewable energy capacity in 2016 (IRENA), and it’s not slowing down.
I predict that coal will resume its decline in 2018, as the emperor wills, and that the world will stay on its emissions plateau.