China’s Coal Dependency Threatens Efforts to Curb Warming

Source: By MICHAEL FORSYTHE, New York Times • Posted: Monday, May 12, 2014

Projected increases in China’s coal consumption may render it “almost impossible” for the world to limit global temperature increases from greenhouse gases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) unless the country acts quickly to cap and then reduce its dependency on the fossil fuel, a new study has found.

Burning coal in China contributes one-fifth of the world’s total emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and if the country continues to increase its coal emissions through 2025 or beyond, it will make it “almost impossible for the world to move onto an emissions reduction pathway that gives even a 50-50 probability of staying below” 2 degrees Celsius, according to the study released on Monday by two British research centers.

China, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, should cap its coal consumption by 2020 or sooner and take steps to eliminate its use entirely by 2040, the study by the Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment recommends. That can be done by improving efficiency, taxing coal and focusing on alternative energies such as wind and solar, the report said.

Weaning China from coal would provide many benefits, the authors, Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern, wrote in the report. Many of China’s cities, especially in the country’s north, are choking in pollution caused in part by coal-fired plants. Cleaner air would dramatically increase the quality of life, helping the government’s push to accelerate urbanization.

China is increasingly dependent on coal imports to feed its growing demand, so a move away from coal would give the country greater energy security and shield it from global price swings. Reducing coal consumption would also ease water shortages, especially in northern China, because of the great deal of water needed to generate power from coal and also to convert coal into gas. And because of the size of China’s market, a push into alternative energies would make China a world leader in solar, wind and other energies, allowing it to develop new export markets, the report said.

Nations meeting in Copenhagen in 2009 for a United Nations summit conference on curbing greenhouse gases agreed that the world should strive to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial times in order to limit rising sea levels and increasingly extreme weather conditions. The study cites figures showing that the maximum global carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions level in 2030 that will give a 50-50 chance of staying below a 2 degrees Celsius increase is 32-33 gigatons. Yet unless China curbs its coal use, it alone is forecast to exceed 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 2030, or almost half that total amount, the study found.

Last year, China issued new rules that curtail the construction of new coal-fired plants in three major urban areas centered on Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. But poorer inland provinces continue to build new plants, viewing the power industry as key to economic development.

Chinese planners have proposed 363 new coal-fired plants, according to a November 2012 report by the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group. Though many of those plants may never be built, their planned capacity is more than half again as much as the entire coal-fired output in the United States, according to United States Energy Information Administration figures.