China Will Cap Coal, Plays for Leadership in the New Industrial Revolution

November 19, 2014


On September 17, 2013, I posted this under the title “China’s Coming War on Coal”,

A primary denialist talking point is that any attempts by the US and Europe to address climate change are doomed to failure, because China and India will continue to build their economies on fossil fuels, and wipe out any gains that might be made.
But reality intrudes. Any idea that China can blindly follow US development models is faulty.


BEIJING — Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

Last week, the joint press conference between Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled the beginning of a long-inevitable course correction.

Shanghai Daily:

CHINA issued an energy strategy for the upcoming years on Wednesday, and a long list of targets in the hope of building a modern energy structure.

The Energy Development Strategy Action Plan (2014-2020) released by the State Council, promises more efficient, self-sufficient, green and innovative energy production and consumption, with a cap on annual primary energy consumption set at 4.8 billion tonnes of standard coal equivalent until 2020.

Annual coal consumption will be held below 4.2 billion tonnes until 2020, 16.3 percent more than the 3.6 billion tonnes burned last year, according to the National Coal Association.

The share of non-fossil fuels in the total primary energy mix will rise to 15 percent by the same year from 9.8 percent in 2013, according to the plan.

The share of natural gas will be raised to above 10 percent and that of coal will be reduced to under 62 percent. Production of both shale gas and coalbed methane could reach 30 billion cubic meters by 2020.


This is a staggering reversal of Chinese energy policy, which for two decades has been centered around building a coal plant or more a week. Now they’ll be building the equivalent in carbon-free power every week for decades, while the construction rate of new coal plants decelerates like a crash-test dummy.

The 2020 coal peak utterly refutes the GOP claim that China’s recent climate pledge “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” Indeed, independent analyses make clear a 2020 coal peak announcement was the inevitable outcome of China’s game-changing climate deal deal with the U.S. last week, where China agreed to peak its total carbon pollution emissions in 2030 — or earlier.

We already knew that China’s energy commitment to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030” was going to require a staggering rate of deployment for carbon free energy. It means adding some 800-1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon power in 16 years, which, the White House notes, is “more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

The CO2 and energy pledge together mean their energy revolution must start now and the planning for it must have started already, which it clearly has (a study from China’s National Coal Association earlier this year projected a 2020 coal peak). That’s because a CO2 peak in 2030 or (more likely) a few years earlier (see below), essentially required Chinese coal use to peak around 2020.

Why? Large-scale coal power generation already has multiple commercial carbon-free alternatives — solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, and so on — but large-scale oil-based transportation has far fewer. Put another way, it is much less expensive for a still-developing country to peak coal use than it is to peak oil use — or natural gas use, for that matter, especially since some of the coal will be replaced with gas.

Indeed Tuesday, Reuters interviewed a leading Chinese energy expert about what China must do to meet CO2 and air pollution targets:

Su Ming, a researcher with the Energy Research Institute (ERI), run by China’s National Development and Reform Commission, said while “peak coal” needed to come in 2020, industrialized eastern regions needed to start to cut consumption earlier if targets were to be met….

Beijing [province] alone would need to cut coal use by 99 percent to below 200,000 tonnes by 2030, ERI said.

Sept. 17, 1013, China’s Coming War on Coal:

A government plan to boost the coal industry and build more power plants near mines will lift industrial demand for water in Inner Mongolia 141 percent by 2015 from 2010, causing aquifers to dry up and deserts to expand, according to Greenpeace and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources. About 28,000 rivers have vanished since 1990, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and National Bureau of Statistics.

Ok, back up the tape. Let me hear that again.

About 28,000 rivers have vanished since 1990, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and National Bureau of Statistics.

That’s why this news item from the other day caught my eye.

ABC News:

China announced Thursday that it will ban new coal-fired power plants in three key industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in its latest bid to combat the country’s notorious air pollution.

The action plan from the State Council, China’s Cabinet, also aims to cut coal’s share of the country’s total primary energy use to below 65 percent by 2017 and increase the share of nuclear power, natural gas and renewable energy. According to Chinese government statistics, coal consumption accounted for 68.4 percent of total energy use in 2011.

New coal-fired power plants will be banned for new projects in the region surrounding Beijing, in the Yangtze Delta region near Shanghai and in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, the State Council said.

My point is, China this week has initiated changes that its most technically literate leadership has known for years would have to be adopted.  The new agreement offers China a way out of the technological cul-de-sac of fossil fuel dependence – the hard physical limits of land, water and agricultural needs, as well as the politically ever-more-destabilizing anger about deadly pollution.

And, those leaders, many of whom are technically trained,  know that the country where energy is free, renewable, and abundant, will dominate the world in the coming century.
China has just accelerated sharply in that direction.

12 Responses to “China Will Cap Coal, Plays for Leadership in the New Industrial Revolution”

  1. Its extremely important that Chinese leadership gets the significance of moving away from FF. The sooner conditions change there, the better. I wish them every success, and the sooner, the better. The study highlights how important it is to remove carbon from transportation. We have solutions for removing carbon from electricity We need EVs and electric rail to increase ASAP.

    With China making serious moves to reduce carbon, the excuses are off the table for other lagging countries.

  2. omnologos Says:

    China is playing the all-of-the-above game without prematurely limiting its options. For example if a new technology would reduce the amount of particulates, China could switch back to high consumption of coal very quickly.

    As for “other lagging countries” I just don’t see why they would feel compelled especially if they do not have the resources available to China. eg India could easily promise they will cap their emissions at whatever level China will cap them in 2030 – and why not.

  3. rayduray Says:

    For anyone inclined to feel that our situation is hopeless regarding the curtailment of fossil fuel use before we wreck the planet, I got more ammo for your pending sense of doom:

    “Mr. Goyal (India Power Minister) has promised to double India’s use of domestic coal from 565 million tons last year to more than a billion tons by 2019, and he is trying to sell coal-mining licenses as swiftly as possible after years of delay. ”

  4. climatebob Says:

    In order that the UN can get countries to make a climate change agreement in Paris the major polluters need to be excluded from the talks.

    • rayduray Says:


      I don’t quite understand your logic here. Should the major polluters be excluded from the Paris COP talks, how can anything of use come out of the discussion? Wouldn’t that just yield another empty feel-ggod resolution with no binding regulation, with no teeth?

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