Not all that long ago there was smog covering vast swathes of land in China. The Chinese government seems to have taken that seriously. A major world power has finally set the standard for what can happen if a country commits to reducing the carbon footprint they leave on the Earth.
China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, so a small decrease in its emissions seem like a monumental feat when compared to other, smaller, countries. According to new analysis, in the first four months of 2015, China’s coal use fell almost 8% compared to the same period last year. Now that kind of reduction in emissions sounds small on the surface. That 8% decrease is approximately equal to the total carbon dioxide emissions of the U.K. over the same period.
The analysis, published by Greenpeace and Energydesk China, reviewed data from a number of sources, including China’s industrial output, and found that China had reduced its coal output by 6.1% in the first four months of 2015. Again a seemingly small figure but the research team calculated that that drop in coal usage translates into a nearly 5% decrease in domestic CO2 emissions.
Lauri Myllyvirta, an analyst who worked on the Greenpeace report, stated that the report showed that China’s industrial output and thermal power generation are falling while renewable energy sources like hydro, wind, and solar are growing at a truly staggering rate.
She did however say that whilst some are questioning the accuracy of the data, she personally has “a high degree of confidence in those statistics because in the current economic situation no government has an incentive to publish falling numbers for industrial growth.”
In 2014, China cut domestic consumption of coal by 2.9%, an admirable attempt and the first drop in more than a decade, with coal production also falling 2.5%. China’s carbon emissions also fell last year for the first time in over a decade, dropping 2% in 2014 compared to 2013.
China is rapidly pursuing clean energy technology, in a world that requires that pursuit, their solar growth for example now dwarfs any other country. They are also closing hundreds of coal plants in response to domestic air pollution issues and a shifting fossil fuel landscape. Yet as much as we wish it was purely environmental imperative the real reason for the dramatic fall in emissions is likely the country’s slowing economy. So far in 2015, China’s economy is growing at a much slower rate than the government’s desired 7% pace, a trajectory that puts it on course to have its weakest economic year in a quarter of a century.
But while China’s economic growth may turn around, its coal use will not. Late last year the government announced it plans to cap coal use by 2020, again one would hope it had something to do with the changing climate but it represents a necessary target to meet its global pledge of peaking greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Reducing its use of coal, which still generates three quarters of China’s electricity, is also a key element of China’s renewable energy target of 20% non-fossil fuels in “primary energy consumption by 2030.”
The reforms could throw coal-fired power plants “to the market lions,” which would likely mean that yet more closures of as yet countless plants. The overabundance of coal plants has lead to a massive overproduction of coal power driving the price down, this means the plants are reliant on tariffs for economic viability.
With China’s domestic energy picture rapidly shifting away from coal, the eastern nation has also continued to engage in strong international rhetoric around climate change in the lead up to the United Nations climate talks in Paris at the end of the year. After entering into a pledge with the U.S. in late 2014 to peak emissions by 2030, this week leaders from China and India, which happen to be the world’s first and third biggest greenhouse gas emitters, issued a joint statement calling climate change “one of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.”
The countries, which depend on rapid economic growth for political stability, stopped short of any hard commitments, wisely considering their penchant for changeability on the issue of climate change. Rather, they focused on the responsibility of the wealthy countries to aid in their efforts to reduce emissions by financing clean energy technologies and by trying harder to reduce their own emissions.
“The two sides urged the developed countries to raise their pre-2020 emission reduction targets and honour their commitment to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to developing countries,” the joint statement said.
Despite its drop in coal use, China remains a major emitter of the greenhouse gas that drive climate change. In 2013, China was responsible for nearly 30% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, a percentage that is rapidly rising, whilst other nations aim to lower their percentage in that particular tally. In 2014, for the first time, China’s per capita CO2 emissions surpassed those of the entirety of the E.U., a trend made even more notable by China’s continued population growth.
If China continues to expand its population they will struggle to be able to maintain any sort of sanity when discussing climate change. If they do not start reducing their global share of greenhouse gas emissions they will find themselves effectively out in the cold when it comes to stronger trade agreements with other wealthy nations, and may even find economic sanctions being levelled against them.