6 December 2019
China's coal-fired plants used four tons of coal last year. The country consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Photo: Reuters
China's coal-fired plants used four tons of coal last year. The country consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Photo: Reuters

China role in fighting climate change should be a no-brainer

New carbon emission cuts by the United States are important, but it can’t make the world’s air cleaner alone. China is the key. And more than just ante up, China has to go all in.

The country accounts for more than a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the New York Times. By 2035, CO2 emissions are forecast to grow by an amount roughly equal to the US total today.

Clearly, that means any hopes that American emission cuts will have a global impact largely rely on China to make massive cuts of its own.

Last month, President Obama called for requiring the nation’s existing power plants to cut their greenhouse gas pollution by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 — equivalent to canceling carbon pollution from two-thirds of cars and trucks in the US.

China, which consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined, will be hard-pressed to respond in kind. US coal-fired plants consumed 925 million tons of coal last year compared with China’s consumption of an estimated four billion tons.

China infamously pays the price for that gargantuan appetite with “crazy bad” air quality that has prompted widespread outrage.

It’s no wonder that only three of the 74 Chinese cities monitored by the central government managed to meet official minimum standards for air quality last year, a statistic directly from the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Some accounts even point to China’s toxic air as the main cause of social unrest.

Last year, discrepancies between official air-quality readings and those from the Twitter feed of the US embassy’s rooftop monitor helped push the government to provide more real-time data from around the country, Bloomberg reported.

Throw in a World Health Organization report that says 40 percent of the seven million people killed by air pollution globally in 2012 lived in the region dominated by China, and it’s hard to figure out why China hasn’t joined the global effort to fight climate change.

This September at the Climate Change Summit in New York, as in 2009 at the Copenhagen conference on climate change, the question remains the same: how do you get China to commit to emission cuts?

If anything, China appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

According to some reports, China will add a US worth of coal plants over the next 10 years, or the equivalent of a new 600-megawatt plant every 10 days for 10 years.

While Prime Minister Li Keqiang “declared war” against pollution in March, acknowledging that “smog is affecting larger parts of China, and environmental pollution has become a major problem”, the announced closure of 50,000 “small coal-fired furnaces” this year isn’t expected to make any notable improvements.

Still, there’s hope.

In addition to the furnace closures, coal-burning power plants with a production capacity of 15 million kilowatts will undergo “desulphurization”, plants with a production capacity of 130 million kilowatts will undergo “denitrification,” and plants with a production capacity of 180 million kilowatts will undergo “dust removal”.

China has also partnered with IBM in a project to manage air quality by monitoring and increasing the amount of renewable energy available for grid transmission or storage.

Finally, the Chinese government has not yet imposed a cap, but it has at least acknowledged the need to rein in rising carbon emissions, according to the New York Times.

Issues, though, remain, with countries arguing over who is responsible for what, the Times said.

How much of the burden should be shouldered by rich countries — which grew rich while spewing carbon into the air in past decades? How much by the fast-growing developing countries — where emissions are growing fastest? Who is to blame for the carbon emitted in making the latest gadget, the developing country that made it or the developed country that bought it?

It will be interesting to see how these issues are ironed out. And ironed out they must be.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business