The good news – from a climate change perspective – is China appears to be taking steps to reduce its coal consumption, but the bad news is it’s much easier said than done. Industrialized nations have been slow to enact binding climate change mitigation strategies due to apprehension that carbon emissions from large developing nations China and India will surpass any western reductions, rendering the actions moot.
In this respect, the fact that China is addressing the issue is a positive step toward more comprehensive government action on climate. But the efficacy of China’s recently-announced coal consumption reduction initiatives is questionable and fraught with challenge.
Greenpeace cited plans to control coal use in 12 of China’s 34 provincial-level governments that account for 44 percent of the country’s coal consumption.
Six governments have already targeted decreases as part of their anti-smog plans. The list is led by Beijing, which would cut 50 percent of its coal use by the end of 2017 from levels of 2012.
The Greenpeace analysis found that coal use could be trimmed by 350 million metric tons from previous growth forecasts, assuming that all provinces will reduce the rise in consumption by one-third as economic expansion slows.
If the trend continues to 2020, the savings could reach 655 million tons of coal, lowering CO2 emissions by 1.3 billion tons, the group said.
If these reductions can be achieved, China would be “close” to the track identified by the UN as needed to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. That 2 degree figure is seen as the threshold beyond which the most dangerous climate change impacts could occur.
Challenges abound however, not the least of which includes the accuracy of Chinese coal use data, where there have been wide deviations between national and provisional reporting. An additional concern is the possibility of a provincial shell game in which coal pollution simply shifts from one jurisdiction to another.
Regulatory enforcement is another challenge – some industrial coal consumers have been accused of turning off scrubbers while still collecting the economic incentives offered for installing them because emissions control equipment is generally energy intensive to operate.
And the country’s economic growth trajectory is another wild card that could side track reductions in coal consumption.
“If economic growth picks up and if the economic structure does not change rapidly, then the growth of coal use will keep pace with natural gas and renewables,” said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at National University of Singapore as reported by Radio Free Asia.
At the same time, reducing coal consumption would likely put downward pressure on the country’s economic growth.
“If you do a little bit of reduction in coal-burning, you’ll reduce growth a little bit. If you do a big reduction, … you’ll hurt growth even further,” Andy Roberts, a coal analyst with the international consulting firm Wood Mackenzie was quoted as saying in the same Radio Free Asia story.