China Slowly Pushing Away from Fossil Fuel

April 29, 2014

But will it be fast enough?

Financial Times:

When it comes to difficult government jobs, few are as tricky as the one held by Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief negotiator on climate change.

On the day he agrees to meet the Financial Times, in a room the size of a basketball court near his office in the country’s economic planning ministry, the air outside is “unhealthy”. At least, that is what it says on the smartphone air quality apps people in Beijing check as obsessively as Londoners watch weather forecasts.

China wants to build on what Mr Xie describes as the “tremendous efforts” already made to replace coal power with cleaner energy sources as its economy matures and becomes less reliant on heavy industry. The question is whether China is willing, or even able, to make such changes in time to prevent global temperatures warming to potentially risky levels.

Mr Xie bristles at the question. “Sometimes the international community wonders whether China will take real action,” he says. “There should be no question on this issue. China will definitely take action, not only in terms of protecting people’s livelihoods and health but also making a contribution to global climate-change efforts.”

It is true that China is taking astonishing strides to switch from coal to cleaner forms of power. Of the 94 gigawatts of new generating capacity it installed last year, almost 60 per cent was renewable. That included more than 11GW of solar, enough to power a small Chinese city and more than any country has built in a single year.

Solar, wind and hydropower now account for nearly a third of its installed electricity generating capacity, compared with less than 15 per cent in the US. It is also piloting emissions trading systems that could lead to a national carbon market by 2020.

But its addiction to coal is far from over. Fossil fuels, mostly coal, still make up nearly 70 per cent of its power generating capacity. Although it plans to boost sharply its nuclear and renewable power, it is also expected to add 248GW of coal capacity between now and 2020, according to IHS, the consultancy – equal to about three new coal plants every month.

Other factors underline the im­mense scale of the challenge China faces as it tries to wean itself off the coal choking its cities. Hydropower dams are by far is main source of renewable energy but cannot be ex­panded infinitely. Nuclear power is ex­pensive. The country’s shale gas industry is in its infancy. Coal is not just cheap – it is ingrained in an economy that is the world’s workshop.

Interviews with officials and advisers working on energy and climate policies suggest China has something in common with St Augustine, who prayed for chastity but not yet.

Yes, it wants to reduce its emissions, but perhaps not as fast as climate science might dictate.



14 Responses to “China Slowly Pushing Away from Fossil Fuel”

  1. philip64 Says:

    There are no risk-free options here. But it seems to me that China is still not facing up to the full extent of the risks inherent in higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations – which are not merely grave, but existential. The current Chinese strategy is nothing less than a huge gamble that future emissions reduction will be in time.

    That said, while most developed countries have all but stopped building new coal-fired power stations (Poland is one dishonourable exception), few have done anything like enough to de-carbonise their economies. So they are in no position to lecture.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    “…..pray for chastity but not yet….” is one of the best lines ever seen on Crock.

    The key to this whole article is the word SLOWLY in the title. China is doing too little too late in moving to renewables and nuclear power. We have had other posts about China’s water problems, and hydropower is unlikely to be able to live up to its potential. Even though wind and solar may be growing at exponential rates, they are still a minuscule portion of the generation picture. Nuclear is not moving forward very rapidly. The gorilla in the room is still COAL, and the projections look grim, even the ones cited here, which are somewhat more optimistic than others I’ve seen.

    “Of the 94 gigawatts of new generating capacity it installed last year, almost 60 per cent was renewable”. That’s about 50-55 GW in a single year. The other “newly installed” 40+% or ~40-45 GW is fossil fuel.

    “….it is also expected to add 248 GW of coal capacity between now and 2020…”. That’s 40+ GW per year for the next 6 years.

    At that rate, it’s going to take a long time for renewables to significantly reduce and replace coal’s portion of the generating capacity from its present ~70% level, and global CO2 will continue its inexorable climb. I’ll say it again, we are whistling past the graveyard.

    PS I have finished reading Junkyard Planet and recommend it to anyone who wants to look at China from a rather unique “back door” perspective. Much insight there on how China fits into the global economy and why the air and water there are so dirty.

    That reminds me of another recent little book that is a real eye-opener. The Box (by Levinson) is a history of the development of the shipping container without which globalization might not have occurred. Another very insightful back door look at what has brought us to our present state of affairs, and actually a “fun” read.

  3. China is deploying renewables quickly. That’s not the problem. The problem is the high growth rate and plans for more coal. How can they add more coal when the air is unbreathable? They feel they must stick to their growth plan, but it is impossible.

  4. mbe11 Says:

    You could just not resist the chance to throw in that wacko line “climate science might dictate”. that line refers to CO2 emisions which by the science has zero correlation with climate change in the past out 800k years or in the present since 1959 in the Mauno Loa studies, zero correlation, you cannot get less than that. What China is actually doing is going nuclear and since it has a huge state subsidary for solar producers as witness our 30percent duty on solar panels it is putting in solar panels to keep the solar factories going. It’s real change will come from nuclear but no green wants to admit that. In 2100 AD if the heating up continues as the little ice age ends we will be at the temperature of 1000 AD assuming the models are correct. The models of the IPCC of course are not correct and never have been. They use data only back to 1951 so they can ignore the hiatus in warming from 1940 to 1980, the current hiatus of 17 years, the cooling from 1880 to 1915, the little ice age and the medieval warm period to name a few things ignored. Climate science shows the actual drivers of climate change are solar gain changes and changes in earths tilt and orbit. The real thing china will do when it completes it transformation is reducing pollution just like the US did to levels people can live with.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      wow. that’s pretty cracked.
      I’m glad you’re here, and not somewhere you
      might hurt yourself.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        You’re too kind. I myself couldn’t care less if he hurt himself here or anywhere else—-I am greatly in favor of the concept behind the Darwin Awards, and mobyleven’s genes would not be missed if they were removed from the gene pool.

        What I DO resent about his being “here” is that flaming anal orifices like him always raise the local CO2 concentration and otherwise pollute their surroundings.

      • Looks like he already hurt himself. Next time wear a helmet when playing football.

    • mbe11, do please look at this little graph (from here) and tell me what you see:

    • cyhalothrin Says:

      I’m not going to bother to respond to your AGW denial theories, as others have done that for me. But I can say a lot about China – I live in Taiwan, speak Chinese, and have spent a lot of time traveling in mainland China. I still keep up with what they’re doing, though I haven’t been over to the mainland for several years now.

      First off, the Chinese do not deny AGW. It’s mostly the English-speaking world (ie USA, UK and Australia) that is populated by devout AGW deniers. The Chinese are mostly pragmatic – they burn coal because it’s cheap and abundant, not because they think global warming is a hoax. But they have an eye on the future and they know they’ve got to change. The severe pollution that is choking their cities is all by itself provides enough motivation to change.

      You are correct that they are moving to nuclear. This blog – which is populated by a lot of alt-energy fanboys – wants to believe that it will be solar panels that is going to “save China,” but if anything is going to “save” it, it will probably be nuclear. The fact that the Chinese are building nukes rather slowly is not because they are worried about the financial cost (they can afford it), it’s because they are learning as they go along. The Chinese were impressed by the disaster as Fukushima, and they don’t want to make costly mistakes. Post-Fukushima, they stopped their nuke-building program and did a year-long safety evaluation. They have now resumed building, but they are doing a lot of research and development on fourth-generation nuclear. They are going to wind up owning this technology, and Western countries will likely be buying nuke plants from China in future years.

      Now about the solar and wind thing. Yes, China is installing a lot of alt-energy capacity. I don’t have inside information, but I don’t think it’s because they feel a need to prop up their factories with more state subsidies. Rather, because – especially out in the thinly-populated arid western region of the country – it actually makes sense. In poor dry windswept Xinjiang or Tibet, it’s more practical to put up solar panels and a wind tower than to build a nuke plant.

      In Bejing or Shanghai, it’s another story entirely.

      They say that “a picture is worth 1000 words,” so ask yourself…

      If you live here, are you going to build a nuke or use solar panels?

      What about if you live here?

    • andrewfez Says:

      …zero correlation, you cannot get less than that….

      The fact that you don’t realize correlation can go all the way down to -1, and that the probability of any phenomena in a complex, closed loop, interdependent system having a correlation of exactly 0 is, well 0, is telling with regard to your ability to understand and interpret science.

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