|China burns more than half of all the coal used in the world, but Beijing announced this week that because of serious air quality problems, new coal-fired power plants are to be banned in three major industrial regions of the country. Will this put a serious dent in their coal use? (Photograph of a coal mine in Inner Mongolia from Wikimedia Commons)|
... in three regions.
When it comes to climate change, coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, is a definite baddie -- BTU for BTU, burning it puts out almost 30 percent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning petroleum and about 78 percent more CO2 than natural gas. Want to fight climate change? Then you better curb coal-fired power plants.* And to the Obama administration's credit, they have undertaken (or at least seem about to undertake) using the authority they have under the Clean Air Act to stop the building of new coal-fired power plants that fail to limit their carbon output and maybe even force existing coal-fired power plants to clean up their act.
The Climate Skeptics Play the China Card
For many who oppose action on climate change here in the United States, the administration's efforts to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants are misguided. The reasons are varied, but a common refrain is that the real problem when it comes to CO2 emissions and the climate is China because one, it has more global warming emissions than any other country and two, China burns more than half of all the coal used in the entire world. And so the argument goes, why should we do something that might hurt our economy** and send American jobs to China, when they have no intention of doing anything about their emissions?
Five or 10 years ago, the China card was a sure winner. But that was then and things have changed. China has taken a number of steps to address its global warming emissions:
- Aiming to cut carbon intensity by as much as 45 percent by 2020,
- Launching a regional cap-and-trade program that will be second in size to the European Union’s market,
- Considering a carbon tax, and
- Instituting a new green energy plan.
And there's also the fact that the United States and China have begun high-level talks on bilateral actions that might be taken to mitigate climate change.
Yesterday, Chinese officials announced another seemingly startling step aimed squarely against coal. Citing serious air quality problems, the government will ban construction of new coal-fired power plants in three major industrial regions of the country near Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and will reduce coal's portion of total energy production from 2011's 68.4 percent to below 65 percent by 2017. (The government also announced plans to outlaw some of the nation's most polluting vehicles.)
How Significant Are These Steps?
So how significant are these new moves by the Chinese government, especially in the context of climate change?
It's easy to dismiss this. Bear in mind that air quality was cited as the reason to ban the new plants and the ban only applies to plants built in the three regions where air quality problems are most severe. There's nothing to stop new coal-fired plants from being built elsewhere in China to make up the difference which would negate any climate benefit.
Indeed, Martin Adams of the Economist Intelligence Unit told The Associated Press that China's total coal emissions will still increase over the rest of the decade and that China's total coal usage was already projected to fall below 65 percent by 2017. To Adams's mind, "There’s less to [the new plan] probably than meets the eye.”
But here's the good news: The Chinese government appears to be coming to its senses. It can no longer ignore the environment in order to pursue unbridled economic growth. These announcements indicate the green movement is alive and growing in the red nation.
* U.S. coal consumption is increasing as well: while this year’s U.S. coal production is not expected to top last year’s, we are using more at home. Exports are down and consumption is up.
** The economic argument against promulgating regulations to limit coal-fired power plants is a bit of a red herring. Even given the recent uptick in natural gas prices, gas-fired power plants are competitive with coal plants.