CO2 Emissions Up Despite Chinese Efforts to Find Alternatives to Coal

June 20, 2013

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China coal 3There's good news and bad news when it comes to the latest global carbon emissions, depending on where you live.

We'll give you the bad news first: “Worldwide CO2 emissions rose by 1.4 percent to 31.6 billion tonnes, according to estimates from the Paris-based IEA,” Reuters reported in mid-June.

The good news? As we said, that depends on where you live. If you’re in the United States or Europe, your contribution is going down.

If you’re in China, yours is going up. But there’s a silver lining: It’s going up more slowly.

Redrawing The Energy-Climate Map.

Those are some of the insights available in the latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), released June 10.

A little background: The IEA, a private, independent organization based in Paris, was founded in 1974 to provide research and information to help with the then-oil crisis. Today it lists its aims include securing member countries’ access to reliable and ample supplies of all forms of energy and promoting “sustainable energy policies.” Member nations include the usual First World suspects in Western and Eastern Europe, Australasia, North America, Turkey, and South Korea.

Things kick off with a stern warning: “The world is not on track to meet the target agreed by governments to limit the long-term rise in the average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius.” It warns that it will be most difficult to meet that target by 2020, when some sort of new “international climate agreement” is supposed to come into effect.

A First: Western Manufacturing Not the Bad Guy.

And the main culprits in the report appear not to be manufacturing in developed Western economies, a nice break from the usual hectoring and nagging such reports have in store for productive manufacturing economies. “Non-OECD countries now account for 60 percent of global emissions, up from 45 percent in 2000,” the report says, adding that yes, in 2012 China was the No. 1 contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions, but on the bright side “its growth was one of the lowest it has seen in a decade, driven largely by the deployment of renewables and a significant improvement in the energy intensity of its economy.”

Thank you, shale gas.

Thank you, shale gas.

And the United States is dialing back its carbon emissions by 200 million tonnes to reach levels not seen since the mid-1990s, the report says, noting that the reduction is due in large part to “a switch from coal to gas in power generation.”

Europe's situation is more unusual. It actually increased its coal use, but overall emissions declined by 50 million tonnes “as a result of economic contraction, growth in renewables, and a cap on emissions from the industry and power sectors.” Emissions in Japan increased by 70 million tonnes, due to more fossil fuel energy generation coming online after the Fukushima nuclear reactor accident.

China's Coal Woes

China’s coal woes are well-known. IMT Green & Clean Journal's Al Bredenberg has written about the “catastrophic” air pollution in Beijing, due in large part to residents burning coal for heat in the winter. China’s roaring manufacturing economy, of course, is a heavy coal user.

One clear hurdle to reducing world carbon emissions overall is weaning China off coal. And there are signs that China’s manufacturers could be finding alternative sources of power. The Energy Collective wrote in March that, according to new statistics from the China Electricity Council, “China’s wind power production actually increased more than coal power production for the first time ever in 2012.” In fact, it’s bigger than nuclear power in China.

Don't breathe the air.

Don't breathe the air.

Thermal power use -- predominantly coal -- grew by 0.3 percent in China during 2012, or 12 terawatt hours, Energy Collective noted, adding that “wind power production expanded by about 26 TWh. This rapid expansion brings the total amount of wind power production in China to 100 TWh, surpassing China’s 98 TWh of nuclear power.”

And even better, Chinese hydroelectric power grew by 196 TWh, “bringing total hydro production to 864 TWh, due favorable conditions for hydro last year and increased hydro capacity.” Add to that the fact that the growth of power consumption slumped by a little over five percent, and things are looking up. Yes, coal still produces eight out of every 10 TWh generated in China, but Energy Collective notes that “the Chinese government’s 12th five-year energy plan (2011-2015) aims for coal to be reduced from 70 percent to 65 percent of energy production by 2015.”

Bloomberg reported in May that manufacturing, which consumes 70 percent of generated electricity in China, contracted for the first time since October 2011 while “the nation’s hydroelectric power output in the first four months of 2013 expanded 20 percent from a year earlier to 181 billion kilowatt-hours, data from the Beijing-based National Bureau of Statistics showed May 16.”

Add to that the fact that Chinese power-station coal “fell to the lowest price in almost four years,” as Bloomberg also reported, due to sluggish demand, and there are harbingers of hope that Chinese CO2 emissions could be declining soon. Not that anybody is expecting it to drop off a cliff, but there should be noticeable decreases.

A drop in the demand for coal in China would have more than one positive side effect -- there might not be so many fatalities mining coal in China, for one. Official estimates are that about 2,000 coal miners died on the job in 2011, which by all accounts would be the starting figure for counting how many really died. Worker fatalities on wind farms are far less common.

Hydroelectric power looks set to increase its share of energy generated for manufacturing in China in the years ahead. Hydroelectric power “is the most widely used form of renewable energy” in the world, according to a 2013 study by Solidiance of China’s Renewable Energy reported on Ecology.com, accounting for 16 percent of global electricity generation “and is expected to increase about 3.1 percent each year for the next 25 years.”

China will lead the way: “China’s total capacity is 22 percent higher than any other countries’ install base,” exceeding that of Brazil, the United States and Canada combined. It won’t be all smooth sailing, though, as “almost 1.5 million people were displaced due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam,” Ecology.com points out, “a level of displacement which, according to analysts, will make future hydro power development more complicated.”

Add to that the fact that the enormous reservoir created in the Yangtze River by the project “is now plagued by pollution,” and the fact that in 2009 “construction on a major hydroelectric power dam project was halted due to environmental objections,” and there are substantial concerns over the extent to which hydro can replace coal in China.

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