International climate-change diplomats, who have had a rough decade, got some potentially exciting news in May when reports emerged that China will consider an absolute cap on carbon emissions in advance of the climate talks scheduled in Paris for 2015.
A hard emissions cap would be a dramatic policy shift for the People’s Republic, which has previously limited emissions reduction schemes to compressing the Chinese economy’s energy intensity (the amount of CO2 released per unit of GDP) and which has decried international efforts to limit the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – and thus the economic growth – of developing countries.
The shift was signaled by remarks made by Jiang Kejun, a carbon policy researcher at the influential National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing, who told the Financial Times, “I am sure China will have a total emission target during the 13th Five-Year Plan.”
The move could enable an achievement that has eluded the world’s major nations for years: a binding international agreement on carbon caps that includes both the developed economies of West and East Asia and rising economic powers like China and India.
If true, this move would mark the latest in a series of measures to reduce GHG pollution in China, the world’s largest producer of atmospheric CO2. Seven Chinese cities plan to enact experimental carbon-trading programs, starting in 2014. Already the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, China has set the goal of obtaining 15% of its power from nuclear power and renewables by 2020. Since taking office in March, President Xi Jinping has made shifting to a less resource-intensive economy and reducing the country’s catastrophic air pollution major priorities. In many respects China has leaped ahead of both the United States and the European Union in its efforts to shift away from fossil fuels.
There’s one problem with this scenario: any program to reduce carbon emissions on the mainland depends on shrinking China’s reliance on coal – and coal-fired power in China is not going away anytime soon.
No Peak Soon
“It is very unlikely that demand for thermal coal in China will peak before 2030,” said William Durbin, the Beijing-based president of global markets with Wood Mackenzie, an energy research and consulting firm, in a statement accompanying the release of a new report entitled “China: The Illusion of Peak Coal.”
“Despite efforts to limit coal consumption and seek alternative fuel options, China’s strong appetite for thermal coal will lead to a doubling of demand by 2030,” the report concludes. Coal consumption in China, bolstered by a period of rampant construction of coal-fired plants that has only recently slowed, must rise to feed China’s explosive demand for power, which will nearly triple to 15,000 TWh by 2030.
Even existing goals for reducing coal consumption are sketchy, many analysts believe. “Achieving these targets eventually would come at considerable economic cost,” John Reilly, an environmental economist at MIT, told New Scientist magazine.
China is by far the world’s largest importer of coal, and despite massive investments in nuclear, wind, and solar power, along with a crash program to develop domestic natural gas reserves, no other energy source can replace coal as a source of primary power in the next two decades. China’s leaders are determined to replicate America’s shale gas boom, but “natural gas supplies will struggle to meet demand growth due to modest investment in conventional reserves and the very slow development of domestic unconventional shale gas reserves,” Wood Mackenzie states.
Gray Market, Black Fuel
The continued coal boom in China also reflects the provincial divisions that make enacting nationwide policies increasingly challenging for leaders in Beijing. Most coal-reduction schemes are centered in the big cities of the coast, while the poorer provinces of the interior still rely on dirty, cheap coal. Ambitious plans to build long distance ultra-high-voltage transmission networks, for example, won’t reduce overall coal burning; they’ll simply shift coal demand from the coast to the interior. What’s more, official statistics on coal use in China significantly underestimate the true demand, because of the size of the gray market consisting of small, unlicensed mines and untracked sales. A 2011 report on the Chinese coal industry produced by Stanford’s Program on Energy & Sustainable Development stated the problem clearly: “One important driving force underlying the existence of gray coal markets in China is the historic and chronic difficulty of compelling local officials to obey central policies.”
China’s evident intention to institute firm caps on GHG emissions is an encouraging sign. But the grim reality is that such a cap has no chance of succeeding without a dramatic, and unlikely, reduction in power generation from coal.
Tags: Carbon Emissions, Climate Change, Coal, Conferences & Events, Policy & Regulation, Power Generation, Smart Energy Program
| No Comments »