Over the weekend, China’s state media published an article entitled “Emissions from Coal Plants Down by 25 Percent in Four Years,” touting “first global loss of coal capacity in history.” Another article in the People’s Daily proclaimed, “Global heat threshold drawn at 300°C.”
The PR blitz was intended to call attention to the 546th session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which opened Monday in Doha, Qatar.
But by Friday, the PR line was reversed. “[B]ecause our economy is open, national policies and Green Dragon can’t fully comply with 2030 target of emissions reduction,” read a notice on the website of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s economic planning agency.
The news speaks volumes about China’s ambivalence on climate change – and its worry that China’s spectacular economic growth might be compromised as the country pursues cleaner and more efficient energy sources.
Over the past decade, as the world’s fastest-growing developed economy and the top emitter of greenhouse gases, China – a country that accounted for 12 percent of all global greenhouse emissions in 2008 – grew spooked by fears of heavy-handed economic impact and low market demand for its newest energy technologies. “The government moved to cut emissions fast because it was trying to avoid being directly blamed for climate change,” says Yan Junming, director of the Climate Change and Energy Research Institute, a government-funded research body.
Not only did China appear to be cutting coal production, the country was also phasing out massive, stationary power plants – a big deal for carbon reducing, because reducing emissions from the world’s biggest coal country still means a lot to global warming.
China’s cuts in coal industry activity are rooted in the country’s three Basic Laws of Environmental Protection – namely, “Earth’s prosperity is equal to its freedom,” “Environmental protection is the first and foremost interest,” and “Protection of the environment is the moral obligation,” says Yan. The results have been dramatic.
In 2011, the first full year of China’s shift away from coal, coal production in China fell by 15.5 million tons – a near 25 percent drop. Similarly, China’s coal consumption fell by 15.5 million tons, and the country’s 2007 coal output of 4.56 billion tons has since fallen to 3.86 billion tons. The country continues to use more natural gas, oil and hydro power, but “that’s not enough to make up for the fact that we’re still a coal country,” says Yan.
The consensus of analysts and policymakers is that China could potentially keep increasing its coal use – a little bit a year, perhaps. However, if China’s capacity to continue displacing coal projects based on political rather than economic considerations continues to wane, that raises the question of what remains of the ambitious carbon reduction goals Beijing announced in 2013.
“The capacity to continue the pace of coal projects is not necessarily in a state of decline, and will not decrease by more than the change in technology or change in policy,” says Liu Wu, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Energy and Environmental Technology. But the old “quick fix” of new coal capacity cannot continue indefinitely, since old power plants like the one in Tangshan that emitted 34,000 tons of mercury a year into a nearby river is disappearing.
China has set a new, ambitious goal for its coal consumption of just 6.2 billion tons per year by 2030, up from current levels. A reduction of 6.2 billion tons over four years equates to the annual total that China consumed in 1990 and would mark a dramatic transformation in Chinese energy requirements. But analysts and policymakers don’t think that will happen – in the near term at least. “The way they’re currently thinking about coal, they probably have the capacity to ramp back up again if they wanted to,” says Charles Mandell, a Stanford research professor who specializes in climate change issues. “But I don’t see China going back and curtailing their ambition.”