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China's climate paradox: A leader in coal and clean energy

AP  |  Washington 

As world leaders gather in Spain to discuss how to slow the warming of the planet, a spotlight falls on China the top emitter of greenhouse gases.

China burns about half the coal used globally each year. Between 2000 and 2018, its annual carbon emissions nearly tripled, and it now accounts for about 30 per cent of the world's total.

Yet it's also the leading market for solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, and it manufactures about two-thirds of solar cells installed worldwide.

"We are witnessing many contradictions in China's energy development," said Kevin Tu, a Beijing-based fellow with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

"It's the largest coal market and the largest clean energy market in the world." That apparent paradox is possible because of the sheer scale of China's energy demands.

But as China's economy slows to the lowest level in a quarter century around 6 per cent growth, according to government statistics policymakers are doubling down on support for coal and other heavy industries, the traditional backbones of China's energy system and economy.

At the same time, the country is reducing subsidies for renewable energy.

At the annual United Nations climate summit, this year in Madrid, government representatives will put the finishing touches on implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, which set a goal to limit future warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Nations may decide for themselves how to achieve it.

China had previously committed to shifting its energy mix to 20 per cent renewables, including nuclear and hydroelectric energy.

Climate experts generally agree that the initial targets pledged in Paris will not be enough to reach the goal, and next year nations are required to articulate more ambitious targets.

Hopes that China would offer to do much more are fading.

Recent media reports and satellite images suggest that China is building or planning to complete new coal power plants with total capacity of 148 gigawatts nearly equal to the entire coal-power capacity of the European Union within the next few years, according to an analysis by Global Energy Monitor, a San Francisco-based nonprofit.

Separately, investment in China's renewable energy dropped almost 40 per cent in the first half of 2019 compared with the same period last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research organisation.

The government slashed subsidies for solar energy.

Last week in Beijing, China's vice minister of ecology and told reporters that non-fossil-fuel sources already account for 14.3% of the country's energy mix.

He did not indicate that China would embrace more stringent targets soon.

"We are still faced with challenges of developing our economy, improving people's livelihood," Zhao Yingmin said.

China is alternately cast as the world's worst climate villain or its potential clean-energy savior, but both superlatives are somewhat misplaced.

As a fast-growing economy, it was always inevitable that China's energy demands would climb steeply. The only question was whether the country could power a sufficiently large portion of its economy with renewables to curb emissions growth.

Many observers took hope from a brief dip in China's carbon emissions between 2014 and 2016, as well as Chinese leader Xi Jinping's statement in 2017 that China had "taken a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change."

Today the country's renewed focus on coal comes as a disappointment.

"Now there's a sense that rather than being a leader, China is the one that is out of step," said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki.

He notes that several developed countries including Germany, South Korea and the United States are rapidly reducing their reliance on coal power.

Fossil fuels such as coal, gasoline and natural gas release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping heat and changing the climate. Coal is the biggest culprit.

Last year, coal consumption in the United States hit the lowest level in nearly 40 years, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

One place to consider the rise, pause and rise again of China's coal sector is Shanxi province a vast mountainous region in central China.

Shanxi is the heart of China's traditional coal country, dotted with large mines, but also the site of some of the country's largest solar and wind-power projects, according to state media.

During most of the past 30 years of rapid economic growth, the coal business boomed in Shanxi and nearby provinces. As China's cities and industries expanded, coal supplied much of that power, and China surpassed the U.S. as the world's top carbon emitter in 2006.

But after climbing sharply for two decades, China's emissions stalled around 2013 and then declined slightly in 2015 and 2016, according to Global Carbon Budget, which tracks emissions worldwide. This dip came as Chinese leaders declared a war on pollution and suspended the construction of dozens of planned coal power plants, including some in Shanxi.

At the same time, the government required many existing coal operators to install new equipment in smokestacks to remove sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other hazardous substances.

About 80 per cent of coal plants now have scrubbers, said Alvin Lin, Beijing-based China climate and energy policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Tue, December 03 2019. 01:00 IST
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