Is China leading the way on climate mitigation?

At the Conversation is an article on China’s lead in renewable energy.
China wants to dominate the world’s green energy markets – here’s why is by University of Sheffield academic Chris G Pope. The article starts:-

If there is to be an effective response to climate change, it will probably emanate from China. The geopolitical motivations are clear. Renewable energy is increasingly inevitable, and those that dominate the markets in these new technologies will likely have the most influence over the development patterns of the future. As other major powers find themselves in climate denial or atrophy, China may well boost its power and status by becoming the global energy leader of tomorrow.

The effective response ought to be put into the global context. At the end of October UNEP produced its Emissions Gap Report 2017, just in time for the COP23 meeting in Bonn. The key figure on the aimed for constraint of warming to 1.5°C to 2°C from pre-industrial levels – an “effective polcy response” – is E5.2, reproduced below.

An “effective response” by any one country is at least reducing it’s emissions substantially by 2030 compared with now at the start of 2018. To be a world leader in response to climate change requires reducing emissions in the next 12 years by more than the required global average of 20-30%.

Climate Action Tracker – which, unlike myself strongly promotes climate mitigation – rates China’s overall policies as Highly Insufficient in terms of limiting warming to 1.5°C to 2°C. The reason is that they forecast on the basis of current policies emissions will increase in China in the next few years, instead of rapidly decreasing.

So why has Chris Pope got China’s policy so radically wrong? After all, I accept the following statement.

Today, five of the world’s six top solar-module manufacturers, five of the largest wind turbine manufacturers, and six of the ten major car manufacturers committed to electrification are all Chinese-owned. Meanwhile, China is dominant in the lithium sector – think: batteries, electric vehicles and so on – and a global leader in smart grid investment and other renewable energy technologies.

Reducing net emissions means not just have lots of wind turbines, hydro schemes, solar farms and electric cars. It means those renewable forms of energy replacing CO2 energy sources. The problem is that renewables are adding to total energy production, along with fossil fuels. The principal source of China’s energy for electricity and heating is coal. The Global Coal Plant Tracker at endcoal.org has some useful statistics. In terms of coal-fired power stations, China now has 922 GW of coal-fired power stations operating (47% of the global total) with a further 153 GW “Announced + Pre-permit + Permitted” (28%) and 147 GW under construction (56%). Further, from 2006 to mid-2017, China’s Newly Operating Coal Plants had a capacity of 667 GW, fully 70% of the global total. Endcoal.org estimates that coal-fired power stations account for 72% of global GHG emissions from the energy sector, with the energy-sector contributing to 41% of global GHG emissions. With China’s coal-fired power stations accounting for 47% of the global total, assuming similar capacity utilization, China’s coal-fired power stations account for 13-14% of global GHG emissions or 7 GtCO2e of around 52 GtCO2e. It does not stop there. Many homes in China use coal for domestic heating; there is a massive coal-to-liquids program (which may not be currently operating due to the low oil price); manufacturers (such as metal refiners) burn it direct; and recently there are reports of producing gas from coal. So why would China pursue a massive renewables program?

Possible reasons for the Chinese “pro-climate” policies

First, is for strategic energy reasons. I believe that China does not want to be dependent on world oil price fluctuations, which could harm economic growth. China, therefore, builds massive hydro schemes, despite it there being damaging to the environment and sometimes displacing hundreds of thousands of people. China also pursues coal-to-liquids programs, alongside promoting solar and wind farms. Although duplicating effort, it means that if oil prices suffer another hike, China is more immune from the impact than

Second, is an over-riding policy of a fast increase in perceived living standards. For over 20 years China managed average growth rates of up to 10% per annum, increasing average incomes by up to eight times, and moving hundreds of millions of people out of grinding poverty. Now economic growth is slowing (to still fast rates by Western standards) the raising of perceived living standards is being achieved by other means. One such method is to reduce the particulate pollution, particularly in the cities. The recent heavy-handed banning of coal burning in cities (with people freezing this winter) is one example. Another, is the push for electric cars, with the electricity mostly coming from distant coal-fired power stations. In terms of reducing CO2 emissions, electric cars do not make sense, but they do make sense in densely-populated areas with an emerging middle class wanting independent means of travel.

Third, is the push to dominate areas of manufacturing. With many countries pursuing hopeless renewables policies, the market for wind turbines and solar panels is set to increase. The “rare earths” required for the wind turbine magnets, such as neodymium, are produced in large quantities in China, such as in highly polluted Baotou. With lithium (required for batteries), China might only be currently world’s third largest producer – and some way behind Australia and Chile – but its reserves are the world’s second largest and sufficient on their own to supply current global demand for decades. With raw material supplies and low, secure energy costs from coal, along with still relatively low labour costs, China is well-placed to dominate these higher added-value manufacturing areas.

Concluding Comments

The wider evidence shows that an effective response to climate change is not emanating from China. The current energy policies are dominated, and will continue to be dominated, by coal. This will far out-weigh any apparent reductions in emissions from the manufacturing of renewables. Rather, the growth of renewables should be viewed in the context of promoting the continued rapid and secure increase in living standards for the Chinese people, whether in per capita income, or in standards of the local environment.

Kevin Marshall

 

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5 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Climate Scepticism and commented:
    Kevin Marshall’s articles at manicbeancounter.com are always worth a careful read. This one struck me as particularly important as it demonstrates how the West’s cognitive dissonance over climate change is spreading to every area of politics, including the vastly perilous area of international relations between the nuclear powers. If we can be so wrong about China’s climate policies, what else will we get wrong? – Geoff

    Reply
  2. I just reposted this at cliscep.com. I hope that’s alright. I’m sure your interpretations (intuitions?) about China’s longterm policy goals are right. Much of it is well known e.g. the overwhelming aim of lifting the rural population out of poverty and thus fending off popular discontent – this has been a recurrent theme of enlightened rulers of this centralised state over millennia.

    Two things make me think our interpretation of China might easily go horribly wrong. One, which you highlight, is that our own obsession with energy transition leads to a totally false interpretation of China’s energy policy, and your article corrects this convincingly. The other may be more controversial here. The Thatcherite revolution led to the total defeat of the idea of state control of the “commanding heights” of the economy. This means that the generation born since the 1970s has no idea what a state planned economy looks like. You may not like state control, but a situation where almost nobody in the West has any experience or understanding of social planning means that we are entirely unable to understand and interpret the policy of China, or India or Russia for that matter.

    Reply
    • manicbeancounter

       /  16/01/2018

      Thanks Geoff for reposting the article at Cliscep.
      The model of state control of the commanding heights of the economy is not one that China is pursuing. It is something quite different – and far more ruthless – that produced 10% growth rates for over 20 years, Japan in its most rapid post-war growth phase only managed about 7% growth. Take, for instance, the production of lithium-ion batteries. For a manufacturing economy, it is a good market to get into. Compared to say steel or shipbuilding it is higher value-added production. Having secure supplies of the major raw material means that it can undercut the competition when the spot price peaks, thus gaining market share. I think this is why China now dominates wind turbines (needing the rare earths for the magnets) and solar panels. At the same time, electric cars do not reduce CO2 emissions when 80% of the electric comes from coal, but it does both satisfy the rapidly rising demand for cars whilst constraining choking smog over the cities.

      Reply
  3. hunter

     /  16/01/2018

    Great article.
    Too bad almost no one is addressing the two elephants in the room:
    1, Is there a “global climate change crisis” to be concerned about?
    2, will the proposed menu of so-called “mitigation policies” impact the “clinate crisis” in a positive way?

    Reply
    • manicbeancounter

       /  16/01/2018

      Hunter,
      I think that your two points can be put into a single question that is also more all-embracing.

      By acting, is there a reasonable expectation of creating a better situation than by not acting?

      This can be applied to many areas of policy. For instance, many individuals or small charities over the years have realized that they are unable to solve global poverty. But they have successfully put in place local programs in some of the poorest countries that have made a huge difference to some people’s lives that far outstrips the cost. In terms of climate, suppose there is CAGW on the way, caused by rising GHG emissions. The evidence might not back CAGW, but look at the what-if scenarios. Clearly, reducing global GHG emissions is not possible, as the repeated failures to implement policies testify. But proper scientists will recognize that with finite resources, the best way for them to reduce the catastrophic consequences of warming is to successfully predict roughly when, where and the magnitude of those catastrophes. For instance, one of the easiest should be sea-level rise. They should recognize that IPCC’s best estimate is for up to 85cm by the end of the century. So sea defenses to guard against any rise over the next thirty years only need to be 30cm or less than currently. To say otherwise is to waste money on false alarmism. It is similar to a doctor when diagnosing cancer, failing to reassure a patient who thinks they will die in a few weeks, when it is likely that with treatment they could either be clear, or live for years.
      The issue for alarmists is that in defining better the scope of the CAGW issue might find that the catastrophic part is of their collective imagination.

      Reply

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