China Coal Addiction May Make Climate Change Solutions Impossible

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Coal consumption in China has grown rapidly in recent years, far beyond what the world has previously witnessed. The amount of coal being used in China exceeds 3.2 billion tons per year; the world’s most populated country is nursing a frightening addiction on this fossil fuel.  In 2011, China’s coal was responsible for one-fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.  Experts are warning that China’s addiction to coal may make climate change solutions “impossible.”

A new study released Tuesday led by the Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change found that China may be the world barrier to keeping global warming under two degrees Celsius.  Climate change researchers have released information last month that warn that exceeding this temperature increase will have devastating effects.

Other studies released in the past week indicate that climate change is imminent and man-made effects from carbon dioxide emissions are likely to exacerbate global warming far more quickly than natural causes. The global increase in coal does not seem to reflect an appropriate response to the pervasive environmental issue.  In 2011 alone, there was a 374 million-ton increase in coal use around the world; China was responsible for 87 percent of this spike. The world now faces the highest carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that have ever been recorded.

Nonetheless, more than two-thirds of China’s total energy and 80 percent of its electricity is made possible by coal.  Most of it is mined domestically, so China is not only the world’s largest coal consumer, but also its largest producer.

While the numbers may seem to indicate that China is in complete disregard of the clean energy movement, that is not the case.  While China produces and uses the most coal, it is also addressing its behemoth energy needs with sustainable solutions. Just last year, China installed more solar energy than any other country in any other year.  Nonetheless, this solar boom only constitutes a “good start,” and the study calls for China to enact policy plans to set 2020 as a benchmark in its coal addiction, moving to use less and less each year after that in order to eventually phase it out.

If Chinese policy does not take a firm stand on China’s addiction to coal in the coming years, it may make global climate change solutions impossible.

Climate change is not the only worry surrounding the Chinese dependency on coal, its unchecked addiction threatens its economy as well.  In the year 2049, China’s leadership will celebrate the 100th birthday of the People’s Republic.  President Xi Jinping named this the year that China will be a “rich” and “strong” country. Coincidentally, the World Energy Council cites 2049 as the year that China is expected to run out of coal.

As it stands, China’s energy policy has not, up until this point, adequately addressed the energy problem.  Policy focuses on feeding coal addiction by making it a priority to build the right infrastructure for fossil fuel imports. It generates more electricity from imported coal than from all other clean energies combined. Experts are saying that unless the Chinese government reforms energy policy to focus more on technological innovations in the clean energy sector, it can expect to be totally dependent on imported fossil fuels.

The study further states that in order to prevent China’s fuel addiction from making climate change solutions near impossible for the world, the country must focus on those clean energy innovations “that have high potential for cost reductions through learning and scale, for global emissions reduction and for global market growth.” Some of the big technologies outlined in the study include concentrating on solar technologies and electric energy infrastructure.

What happens if the coal addiction in China—and in the rest of the world—is not reversed?  The United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group said that not investing resources in the divestment of fossil fuels will be devastating. There is good reason worldwide for China and the rest of the world to consider why it is of paramount importance to take action on the idea that coal addiction may make climate change solutions impossible.  The UN panel said that the effects of climate change, aside from extreme weather, include water and food supply shortages leading to civil resource wars, migration and international conflict.

Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the working group, warns world industry and policymakers that now is the time to pay attention and make changes, or else there could be dire, climate change consequences. According to Edenhofer, “There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”

By Erica Salcuni
Follow Erica on Twitter


South China Morning Post
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

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