The US/China Game Changer
December 15, 2014
The US/China climate agreement is a game changer, for a lot of reasons. Below, some analysis from Climate Progress. Above, my video on the subject, probably the first of several.
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One aspect that has not been well explored in the media, is that this is a deal that China needs – not because they want to score PR points, not because they want to look like a responsible world power, and not even, primarily, because they are all that concerned about climate change (although, increasingly, they are..)
They need to change the course they are on because the breakneck development of fossil fuels has put them on a collision course with some very, very hard physical limits – in particular, water. In addition, they are looking at pollution problems that have become so severe, they are now a primary source of political unrest. And this generation of Chinese leaders remembers how rough things can get in China in a period of unrest.
For the video above, I sampled the media sphere for pieces of the narrative, as usual, and I interviewed Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, one of the world’s best recognized experts on water resources, and Keith Schneider, a long time New York Times writer, currently global correspondent for Circle of Blue, an NGO dealing in the nexus of water, climate and energy.
“Renewable and nuclear energy accounted for 9.8 percent of China’s energy mix in 2013,” said Melanie Hart, the Director for China Policy at the Center for American Progress. “They have just promised to double that by 2030. That target will light a fire under China’s already-aggressive renewable deployments and put even stronger limits on coal and other fossil-fuels.”
Experts did tell Reuters that the emission reductions China needs to meet this deal are not too far off from the course it’s already projected to maintain. That said, the Chinese government and its officials have raised the peak goal as a possibility before, but coming from Jinping himself, Wednesday’s deal constitutes the most robust commitment China has ever made.
“It’s the agreement that people have been waiting for, for a long time,”said Jake Schmidt, director of the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. “It’s the two biggest emitters, the two largest economies, the two biggest drags on agreement over the years. For them to step up and say we’re going to take deep actions, it will send a powerful signal to countries around the word.”
But the President has argued that as the world’s second-largest emitter currently, and by far its largest historically, the U.S. cannot expect other countries to act if it does not demonstrate good faith by stepping forward. Hence the suite of executive actions Obama announced in his second term to cut U.S. emissions, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s recently rule for power plants as its centerpiece. As such, Wednesday’s deal also marks an at least partial vindication of Obama’s strategy.
The Chinese government announced Wednesday it would cap coal use by 2020. The Chinese State Council, or cabinet, said the peak would be 4.2 billion tonnes, a one-sixth increase over current consumption.
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.