Coal and China

by Milan on November 12, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Coal mining, Power plants

Cutting global coal use is the single most important thing to do, if we want to prevent the effects of climate change from becoming catastrophic. As such, the use of coal in China is a critical issue for the entire world. In 2009, China consumed 49% of the world’s coal, much of that to produce exports that went to other countries, from steel girders to iPods.

Much of the coal China uses is produced and shipped domestically (sometimes causing carbon tariffs). The fact that China’s leadership is less clueless about science than those in Canada and the U.S. may help. That said, it will take an enormous effort to decarbonize the global economy before catastrophic climate change has been locked in. Curbing coal burning in China will be one of the key battles in that overall effort.

Beyond climate change, air pollution from coal also causes enormous death and suffering in China – further reason to push aggressively toward better energy options.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

. November 13, 2010 at 10:50 am

Dirty Coal, Clean Future
TO ENVIRONMENTALISTS, “CLEAN COAL” IS AN INSULTING OXYMORON. BUT FOR NOW, THE ONLY WAY TO MEET THE WORLD’S ENERGY NEEDS, AND TO ARREST CLIMATE CHANGE BEFORE IT PRODUCES IRREVERSIBLE CATACLYSM, IS TO USE COAL—DIRTY, SOOTY, TOXIC COAL—IN MORE-SUSTAINABLE WAYS. THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT NEW TECHNOLOGIES ARE MAKING THIS POSSIBLE. CHINA IS NOW THE LEADER IN THIS AREA, THE GOOGLE AND INTEL OF THE ENERGY WORLD. IF WE ARE SERIOUS ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING, AMERICA NEEDS TO WORK WITH CHINA TO BUILD A GREENER FUTURE ON A FOUNDATION OF COAL. OTHERWISE, THE CLEAN-ENERGY REVOLUTION WILL LEAVE US BEHIND, WITH GRAVE COSTS FOR THE WORLD’S CLIMATE AND OUR ECONOMY.

By James Fallows

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/print/2010/12/dirty-coal-clean-future/8307/

Alison November 15, 2010 at 9:43 am

What percentage of coal in China is needed to manufacture goods that are shipped overseas? I would take a broad view of infrastructure and include not only the coal needed to “run” factories but the the coal that is needed to power workers’ homes and get them to work. Do you have any stats on this?

While it’s true China needs to reduce coal use, doesn’t that belie the fact that countries that import Chinese goods are implicated in its energy use?

Milan November 15, 2010 at 10:00 am

Regarding Dirty Coal, Clean Future. I have been meaning to write a response to that article.

Milan November 15, 2010 at 10:11 am

Alison,

It is certainly the case that a fair chunk of coal use in China is the result of other countries exporting their pollution.

The ideal policy response to climate change would probably be to cap the total quantity of fossil fuels that can be extracted all over the planet and auction off the permits (perhaps granting free permits for the survival needs of everybody, then charging more for ‘luxury’ permits).

An alternative and more pragmatic approach is to effectively apply a domestic carbon price on exporters, through the use of a carbon tariff.

. November 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

To sum up (in the unlikely event anyone’s still reading), the net effect of EPA regulations on stationary-source greenhouse gases is likely to be modest. Old plants will get some efficiency tweaks and new plants will have to be built with modern technology. This will bring the U.S. in line with China, which is building tons of hyper-efficient new coal plants, retiring a bunch of inefficient old ones, and increasing the net efficiency of its coal fleet by leaps and bounds. But China isn’t reducing its net emissions, and these EPA regulations are unlikely to reduce net emissions either.

Antonia November 16, 2010 at 9:45 am

Decarbonising a population (such as China) where a very substantial proportion of those in rural areas still use wood and coal as a primary cooking/heating source in the home and for cottage industries is particularly challenging

Alison November 16, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I am suggesting taxing importers of goods that are manufactured in environmentally-unfriendly ways in other countries. Wouldn’t just taxing the exporter (China) be asymmetric? And I think that would depend on whether there is the political will to impose that export carbon tax in the other country. Doing that on a worldwide scale would take a lot of consensus. But in the meantime: as a Canadian purchasing a good made in China (like, say an Apple product), shouldn’t I be made to pay the “whole cost” of the good? This reminds me a bit of the issue around coltan being used in electronics.

Milan November 16, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Antonia,

I don’t think those domestic emissions are the main part of the problem. China’s sharply increasing emissions probably have a lot more to do with increases in electricity generation, transport, agriculture, and manufacturing than with domestic heating and cooking.

Alison,

The idea with a carbon tariff is that you would charge your domestic carbon price on imports, with the importer paying. That way, for example, a Chinese steel mill wouldn’t be able to undercut a Canadian one, just because the Canadian mill was paying a future carbon tax and the Chinese mill was not.

Also, carbon tariffs could drive exporters to adopt domestic carbon prices, in exchange for having the tariff removed. The Chinese government would certainly prefer for the revenues to go to them, rather than Canada. Given how important a carbon tax in China could be, it would be useful if carbon tariffs in places like the U.S. and European Union drove them in that direction.

. November 30, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Only China Can End Fossil Fuel Industry’s Iron Grip on Governments — James Hansen, Climate Scientist

In a stunning opinion piece  (pdf) NASA’s chief climate scientist James Hansen, acting a private citizen, asks China to take the lead on combating climate change. The US government is too fractured and too beholden to the fossil fuel interests to take action. “Big money” is also behind the lack of action in many other industrialized countries including Canada and Norway while they expand production of tar sands he writes.

He says China is the world’s best hope to end the rule of the world by fossil fuel interests.

Like most governments the Obama administration says climate change is a crisis, claims to have a plan and does little to nothing. Hansen calls this “green washing”. (FYI this is a wide spread practice that most people are unaware of.)

In this picture Hansen, one the world’s most acclaimed climate scientists, is being handcuffed and arrested in front of the White House during a protest to urge the US government to end the coal industry practice of blowing off the tops of mountains to mine coal. Such practices are extremely damaging to the environment and local communities he says.

. October 7, 2011 at 6:29 pm

China climate goals run against growth: report
Tue, Oct 04 18:54 PM EDT

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – China, the world’s biggest carbon dioxide emitter, will meet near-term goals to fight climate change but quick economic growth will mean C02 emissions will be higher than previously thought, researchers said on Tuesday.

China’s quick adoption of clean energy will help it exceed emissions-to-GDP targets agreed last year, but its carbon dioxide output will still be increasing a decade from now with an expanding economy, said scientists with Climate Action Tracker.

“China is set to not only meet its Cancun Agreement emissions intensity pledge, but is likely to go beyond it,” the independent research group said, referring to the December 2010 global climate change accord.

“However, at the same time, largely due to faster than expected economic growth, emissions in 2020 are likely to be higher than previous estimates.”

The study underscores the uncertain value of global pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions meant to meet the international goal of no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) temperature rise over pre-industrial levels which most scientists agree is required to avoid potentially catastrophic climate events.

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