China struggles to cut coal use as world loses battle on climate change
Bleak assessment comes on second anniversary of Paris Agreement and after report suggests China’s 2017 carbon emissions set to rise 3.5pc
Two years after the Paris climate agreement was adopted, French President Emmanuel Macron has warned of slow progress in the fight against global warming, which has hit bumps both in the United States and China – the world’s two biggest greenhouse gas emitters.
“We are losing the battle,” he said at the One Planet Summit on Tuesday on the second anniversary of the Paris accord, under which almost 200 countries agreed to take action to limit temperature increases.
Macron’s bleak assessment came after US President Donald Trump decided to pull out of the climate pact, and China – the world’s biggest carbon emitter – reported a recovery in emissions over the past year.
China produces nearly a third of all greenhouse gases, but as Beijing expands its role in global governance, it has shown a greater willingness to participate in climate talks than has Washington.
But Beijing’s climate commitments have been overshadowed by its long-term reliance on coal-intensive sectors and its struggles to ensure stable supplies of cleaner fuels at home.
China is expected to record a 3.5 per cent rise in carbon emissions in 2017 after two years of declines, thanks to a government-led infrastructure boom that pushed up coal consumption, according to a November report by the Global Carbon Project, an international research consortium.
The uptick will contribute to a 2 per cent rise in world carbon emissions after three years of zero growth, it said.
“It to some extent reflects that the government is still leaning towards economic growth,” Li Shuo, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace Asia, said. “But the balance is moving to transforming the economy, cutting overcapacity and protecting the environment.”
Despite the increase this year, the trend for China’s carbon emissions should continue downwards as its service sector grows, but how fast the government can make the shift remains uncertain, Li said.
Besides reducing its coal use through economic restructuring, China has promoted the use of cleaner fuels to help resolve its notorious air pollution problems, but that too has faced challenges.
A large amount of wind and solar power generated in the country never reaches consumers due to lags in grid construction, costing the industry billions of yuan in lost earnings every year.
Similarly, this winter, an aggressive campaign to switch residential and commercial consumers from coal to natural gas triggered a nationwide shortage, and left homes, schools and even hospitals without enough energy for heating.
“It is very well-intended to cut coal use in northern China,” Christopher Balding, an economist at Peking University HSBC Business School, said. “The problem is that to replace coal you need gas pipelines, you need to change heating sources, you need to change electricity generation plans … Those type of changes don’t happen in a couple of months.”
Qi Ye, an environmental researcher and senior fellow at Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy in Beijing, said that as the world’s largest energy consumer moved away from coal it faced the challenges of setting up the infrastructure for alternative fuels and ensuring stable, affordable supplies.
“[However] I think as long as China tackles its own problems well, it automatically becomes the biggest contributor in the climate campaign,” he said.
Over the past two years, Beijing has earned international praise for its commitment to the Paris accord, especially after the United States’ decision to leave it.
Weeks before Macron’s warning, Beijing’s top climate official Xie Zhenhua told negotiators in Bonn, Germany that China would play the role of “guardian” in climate talks.
On Tuesday, Vice-Premier Ma Kai, told the One Planet Summit in Paris that China would continue to support the agreement and contribute to global climate governance, China Radio International reported.
While environmentalists have applauded Beijing’s apparent commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they have also questioned if it will prioritise it over economic growth.
Greenpeace campaigner Li said there were still huge incentives for local governments to build heavy-polluting and coal-fired plants, and that state-owned enterprises continued to invest in them.
Scientists, meanwhile, have warned that rising temperatures have a direct correlation with reduced productivity.
A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, said that in China, every day the mercury rises above 32 degrees Celsius manufacturing output falls by 0.45 per cent as a result of worker fatigue and machines overheating.
Zhang Junjie, an associate professor at Duke Kunshan University in eastern China’s Jiangsu province and one of the authors of the study, said that such cost analyses could be the motivation policymakers need to do more to combat global warming.
“Climate change is a systematic risk,” Zhang said. “We are trying to show the benefits in fighting it.”
According to a 2015 study published in Nature magazine, in the event of global temperatures continuing to rise China would be hard hit in economic terms, with its GDP per capita forecast to fall by 42 per cent by 2100, compared with a global average of 23 per cent.
The so-called Paris Agreement was reached on December 12, 2015, when 196 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and set a global target to limit average temperature rises in their countries at no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
The agreement also saw developed nations promising to contribute US$100 billion a year from 2020 to mitigate the effects of climate change in developing countries.
At the summit in Paris on Tuesday, the World Bank said it would from 2019 stop financing oil and gas exploration and extraction projects – which account for about 2 per cent of its current portfolio – becoming the first multilateral bank to take such a step.
Also, more than 200 large-scale investors, including HSBC and US pension fund CALPERS, agreed to put pressure on the world’s 100 heaviest polluting companies to reduce their emissions.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse