How can China and California tout clean energy but still dirty their hands with fossil fuels?

Michelle Chan says that as officials from California and China gather to talk about clean, renewable energy, both have continued to exploit unsafe fossil fuels, within and beyond their borders

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 September, 2018, 5:52pm

This month, thousands of companies, scientists, activists and government officials will descend on California to participate in the Global Climate Action Summit. Initiated by California governor Jerry Brown, it aims to “to prevent dangerous climate change”. But the truth is that climate change is already here, and the world is still scrambling to find long-term solutions.

One of the event’s prominent co-chairs is Xie Zhenua, China’s top climate negotiator. Since US President Donald Trump’s administration remains detached from the reality and urgency of climate change, China and California are increasingly seen as the planet’s best hope to lead and deliver solutions.

But are they? Both have indeed made strides towards addressing climate issues. China is phasing out domestic coal use and is the world’s leading manufacturer of solar panels. California requires that 33 per cent of the state’s retail electricity be generated by renewables by 2020. As two of the largest economies of the world by size, China and California do have the potential to be climate leaders.

However, their biggest barrier may be their continued support of the fossil fuel industry, which casts a long, dark shadow over these developments and calls into question the integrity of China and California’s environmental commitments.

For instance, China has successfully reduced its domestic coal consumption, but this shift has in turn propelled the ailing Chinese coal industry to aggressively expand overseas and put other countries on a coal-heavy development path. Chinese firms are building six new coal plants in Vietnam and, in Bangladesh, Chinese developers and financiers are involved in the construction of 11 new coal plants.

How can China cut pollution and meet its energy needs?

Meanwhile, China’s increasing reliance on liquid natural gas (with its high life cycle carbon footprint) is undermining its environmental credibility. In July, for example, the first shipment of LNG from the Arctic arrived in China via the Northern Sea Route. The LNG was produced by the Yamal LNG project, located about 500km south of a protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention. As more ships travel through the Northern Sea Route, the risk of shipping accidents, oil spills and noise pollution in the fragile Arctic region dramatically increases.

Like China, California also has a fossil fuel addiction it just can’t kick. This year, California announced that the state had reduced emissions to 1990 levels, but these calculations don’t include the Aliso Canyon methane leak. In 2015 and 2016, the leak spewed the equivalent of 2.49 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air, wiping out much of the state’s carbon reductions.

But despite the known dangers of natural gas (fracking, methane emissions, health effects), the administration has also issued more than 20,000 new drilling permits inside California, which adds to the state’s 84,000 existing oil and gas wells. These wells threaten the public health and safety of about 5.4 million people who live within a mile of them – that’s about 14 per cent of the state’s population, a disproportionately high number of whom are from low-income communities.

Don't overlook methane emissions in the fight against climate change

Both China and California are increasing their reliance on oil imports from sensitive ecosystems. In the Amazon, often called the “lungs of our planet”, China is a leading investor in oil extraction, buying up pristine rainforests for fossil fuel development.

California is an awkward partner in this arrangement. According to Amazon Watch, while China bankrolls much of the investment, California is the world’s leading refiner and consumer of Amazon crude. About half of the oil exports from the Western Amazon Basin come to California to be processed by refineries and used by consumers in the state.

China and California have taken positive first steps toward promoting renewable energy, and it is widely understood that the world cannot fully decarbonise overnight.

But real climate leaders can’t tout renewables while failing to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Both China and California need to establish concrete timelines for phasing out all fossil fuels, both inside and outside their borders.

Michelle Chan is vice-president of programmes for Friends of the Earth