China

While the rest of the world is trying to com to grips with the European Union’s proposed carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) – which calls for the levying of charges on non-E.U. products in relation to their embedded carbon footprint — China, on the other hand, is currently grappling with a slightly different energy-related issue.

A massive heat wave in some parts of the country coupled with a shortage of coal because of China’s spat with chief supplier Australia has sent coal prices soaring.

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China to ramp up coal production

coal pile

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Now, China, the world’s biggest consumer of coal, plans to add almost 110 million tons (MT) per year of advanced production capacity in the second half of this year to meet the rising demand of coal.

This Economic Times reported China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said that around 400 MT of coal mining capacity is under review for the government’s approval. Another 70 MT capacity is also under construction, and would be launched in a phased manner.

What’s more, China’s state planner has asked power plants to build their coal inventory to the equivalent of at least seven days of consumption by July 21. News agency Reuters said the Chinese government was trying its best to ensure electric supply to the coal-fired plants amid surging power consumption from industrial and residential users.

In the first half of 2021, China has already added over 140 MT of coal mining capacity.

Eleven provinces registered record-breaking power load a few days ago, the Economic Times reported, as the heat wave led to higher use of electricity. In the first six months of 2021, power consumption rose by 16% from a year earlier, the report added.

Old coal

While simultaneously augmenting coal capacity, the NDRC has come down on outdated coal capacity. Where once there were 10,000 coal mines in China in 2015, now there are about 5,000. The NDRC has been urging coal miners to set up advanced mining capacity and ramp up output.

China’s average daily coal consumption has gone up to over 2.2 MT at key power plants in at least eight provinces in China as of July 15, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post quoted the NDRC, which said China will release over 10 MT of coal from its state reserves.

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China’s efforts to curb carbon emissions from the steel manufacturing process have slowed down its steel production.

But only to a degree.

However, a new report now shows that almost all the major steel mills in its steelmaking hub, Tangshan in Hebei province are back online.

A report by industry portal mysteel.com, citing its field survey, said the furnaces were firing again — albeit at 70% — according to this news report.

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Tangshan steel mills come back online

Tangshan steel plant

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In fact, Tangshan’s mills contribute about 14% of China’s raw steel output. Furnaces are running at a lower rate because of China’s stringent new emission standards. Only those mills meeting these conditions are going full blast, according to the news report.

China remains the world’s No. 1 steel producer with over 1 billion tons of crude steel production. However, Beijing has been trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions to meet the country’s pledge to bring its emissions to a peak before 2030.

In the first five months of this year, the country’s crude steel output reached 473.1 million tons, the World Steel Association reported. The five-month output total marked an increase of 13.9% year over year.

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China’s steel and aluminum market is undergoing a quiet revolution.

It’s not a revolution of investment or innovation.

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Peak aluminum, steel in China?

China aluminum

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According to Reuters, Beijing’s target of peak coal use by 2030 is asserting a dampening effect on new steel mill and aluminum smelter investment.

As such, the country could be at or near peak production. As Reuters’ Andy Home notes, the country’s rising output over the years as had a dampening effect on prices. That trend has led some Western producers to cease operations.

But a combination of harsher environmental legislation resulting in Beijing dissuading investment in new coal fired power projects, combined with Western markets’ meaningful action — after years of simply complaining — to block out Chinese exports of aluminum and steel products suggests the Chinese impetus to build capacity and the rest of the world’s willingness to buy product are both going through a transformational change.

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China aluminum

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When the largest aluminum producer on earth keeps reporting high import figures, the world sits up and takes note.

According to figures released by the Chinese General Administration of Customs a few days ago, China recorded a new high for aluminum imports in March 2021.

Stop obsessing about the actual forecasted aluminum price. It’s more important to spot the trend

China aluminum imports surge in March

Imports went up 40.8% from February 2021, taking first quarter imports to a total of 661,517 tons. The quarterly total marked an increase of 118.8% from the same period in 2020.

China has been on this aluminum importing spree since July 2020. China’s aluminum imports last year, including primary aluminum and unwrought alloy, surpassed the previous annual record set in 2009.

What’s more, Shanghai aluminum prices last week were at their highest since 2010. China had bought in record volumes of the metal in 2020, riding on an uptick in domestic demand. Strong demand pushed the Shanghai prices higher than London prices, opening an arbitrage window for cheaper overseas metal.

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China aluminum

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China — and, indeed, Asia as a whole — has a serious issue evolving that few would have seen coming five years ago.

Back then, the carbon content of aluminium was a well-known fact. However, its light weight and high recyclability seemed to outweigh the CO2 emissions inherent in its production.

Not so now.

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China aluminum sector and emissions

Government’s ambitions to reduce atmospheric pollution and consumers’ increasing desire for low or net-zero emission products is driving a rapid transformation in issues around aluminum smelter power supply.

Nowhere is this likely manifesting itself as dramatically as in China. Environmental pollution is one of few issues Beijing actually feels vulnerable about as a source of public unrest. The government’s latest five-year plan calls for dramatic reductions in emissions. The news has already hastened a move to hydro-rich Yunnan province, Reuters reported. The government effort against pollution could herald the closure of capacity elsewhere.

Coal problem

The challenge for China is that so much of its aluminum smelting uses coal-fired power production.

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stainless steel

Maksym Yemelyanov/Adobe Stock

Stainless steel prices in Asia have plateaued for now.

But most suggest this is a temporary slowdown in advance of the Chinese New Year holidays.

Thereafter, the market is likely to continue its relentless rise of the last two years.

China stainless steel market ramps up output

According to ArgusMedia, China’s production, imports and consumption of stainless steel all rose in 2020. China produced 30.14 million tons of crude stainless steel in 2020, up by 2.51% from 2019.

Despite significantly higher nickel prices, output increases favored nickel bearing 300 & 400 series and even duplex stainless steel with only non-nickel-containing 200 series declining.

Meanwhile, imports surged to 1.81 million tons, up 61.33%. Much of those imports came from Indonesia, where Chinese firm Tsingshan Holding Group has a new mill. As such, imports from Indonesia rose 24.3% year over year to 1.1 million tonnes in the first nine months of 2020.

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Declining exports

Exports, on the other hand, declined. Trade disputes between China and the United States, the European Union, Japan and South Korea led to the imposition of duties on shipments.

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copper coils stacked

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China has had a fraction of the deaths and hospitalizations from the COVID-19 pandemic that Western societies have had. Furthermore, China had an economic bounceback that saw its GDP rise 2.3% last year.

China’s bounceback

The rebound has been impressive.

Construction of new high-speed train lines to smaller provincial cities and new motorways connecting remote cities left behind in previous plans in part drove the recovery.

The housing sector has also boomed. Overseas demand has boosted manufacturing, particularly PPE and electronic goods, even as other exporters have suffered by lockdowns in those markets.

In the longer term, further debt and a swing back to manufacturing from the earlier pivot to consumption will not do the economy or China any good.

For now, however, the economy is humming. Tailwinds from both stimulus and pent-up savings should keep the economy growing strongly in the first half of 2021.

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China story steel production

Zhao Jiankang/AdobeStock

If we were worried about China’s dominance of global steel output over the last decade, the next decade is looking like it may be even worse.

Having bounced back robustly this year from severe coronavirus lockdowns in Q1, China is on track to top 1 billion tons of steel production by the end of 2020, beating 2019’s 996.3 million tons despite steel-consuming industries suffering a lockdown.

Indeed China is the only major producing country to have increased output this year, up 5.6% at the end of October. Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea, and India are all down over the year cumulatively, leading to a global 1.9% reduction.

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Despite a small decrease from record levels in August and September, China’s October output was still up on last year.

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China and India find themselves in some sort of a mini-race in the crude refining business.

(As readers of our Annual Outlook know, the oil sector is one of three key macroeconomic pillars we consider in our analysis of commodities markets, in addition to the Chinese economy and the strength of the U.S. dollar).

China races ahead in crude refining

China, though, is paces ahead of its neighbor. If all goes to plan, China could soon dethrone the present No. 1 refiner, the United States.

Bloomberg quoted the International Energy Agency (IEA), which said that perhaps by next year, China would dethrone the U.S. as the top refining country in the world.

This will be no small feat.

China may become No. 1 following the closure of some refineries in the U.S.

Steve Sawyer, director of refining at energy industry consultancy Facts Global Energy, told Bloomberg in an interview that, in the coming years, China would be putting out an additional million barrels a day, helping it overtake the U.S.

India aims to build crude refining capacity

While China goes about the crude refining business, its neighbor India has also thrown its hat in the ring.

For the last couple of years, India has made no bones of building its domestic refining capacity. The country has added some well-known international petroleum companies to its client list.

India planned to double its current capacity in the next 10 years. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants things done faster.

At present, India’s refining capacity stands at 250 million tons, or a little more than 5 million barrels per day, based on a conversion factor of 7.33 barrels per metric ton of oil. Under an earlier plan, India sought to hike this to 450 million to 500 million tons over the next 10 years.

Now, Modi wants to do it even faster, accomplishing it within five years.

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We wrote last month how China’s rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the country importing semi-finished products for which it previously had been self-reliant or even a net exporter for the last decade.

Some steel products and primary aluminum swung into becoming significant net inflows for the economy during the summer months.

But as we cautioned at the time, this was only expected to be a temporary phenomenon.

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China’s steel flows recalibrate

Sure enough, although volumes are still down on this time last year, exports have picked up and imports have fallen.

In a recent post, Argus Media reported China’s steel exports in October rose by 5.2% from September to 4.04 million tons. Chinese mills shifted supplies to overseas markets, enabled — or forced, depending on your point of view — by falling domestic prices.

Summertime exports rose as domestic prices fell

Falling domestic prices in the summer aided Chinese steel mills’ ability to export so aggressively.

Domestic inventory levels rose and domestic crude steel production hit record levels of 3.09 million tons a day in September, in large part to meet domestic demand. Weakness in domestic steel prices suggests overoptimism by the steel mills, inevitably resulting in excess production leaking into export markets looking for a home.

Domestic Chinese steel prices have recovered since the summer as global steel prices have risen and imports have fallen.

As the global recovery has lifted demand and prices, mills in India and elsewhere have not felt the need to distress sell metal into China. In addition, the arbitrage window has narrowed.

Imports have therefore appeared less attractive to Chinese buyers and exports more attractive to mills. That is a trend we expect to continue through Q4.

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