Saturday, 19 December 2015


When the nations of the world first tried to cut a deal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the late 1990’s, America, then the world’s biggest polluter, would not consent to mandatory reductions, all but strangling the accord. These days, China is the biggest polluter and the country without which no global agreement will stick. China emits more greenhouse gases than anywhere else in the world partly because it has a lot of people; 1.4 billion, compared with 800m for America and the European Union put together.

Much of the pollution China causes comes from making goods for other countries. It has been established that once the pollution that goes into traded goods is assigned to the country that consumes them, the average Chinese person harms the planet less than does the average European and much less than the average American. China was responsible for three-quarters of the net coal-fired power generating capacity added worldwide between 2000 and 2014 and the country’s hunger for coal is not limited to its power stations. At least, a quarter of Chinese coal is used in what Laszlo Varro, a fossil-fuel expert at the International Energy Agency, calls a “Dickensian” manner. Burned inefficiently in boilers to heat buildings and power textile mills, it has fouled the air around Chinese cities turning them into a replica of 19th-century Manchester.

Climate change denial is strikingly rare among China’s political leaders, some of whom trained as engineers. They understand that their country is expected to suffer some of the worst consequences of global warming; Northern China, which is increasingly hot and dry, will probably become hotter and drier still. The politicians are also well aware that their country’s urbanites are fed up with breathing toxic air. Before 2012, no city disclosed air-quality data, recalls Ma Jun of the institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing.

Now, about 400 cities do. Around the big cities, heavy polluters are increasingly chivvied to clean up. To an extent, the problem is simply being pushed from China’s coastal cities towards the interior. The coal-fired power stations that are shutting the east coast are some of the most polluting in the world. The new ones being built in the west are some of the world’s best. They burn coal at higher temperatures and use higher pressures making them more efficient. China is also throwing money at nuclear power and renewables.

It spent almost one dollar in every three invested in renewable energy around the world in 2014, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research firm. Last year, China got about 11% of its energy from renewables, helped by an unusual quantity of rainwater to power its hydro-electric stations. The country also claims to have connected five gigawatts of solar power to the grid in the first three months of 2015, almost the equivalent of all the solar panels in France. Some of this renewable power is wasted.

In China’s command and control energy market, power stations are contracted to produce electricity months in advance. Although the energy companies are supposed to favor renewables, they find them hard to handle because their supply is not reliable and many coal-fired power stations supply heat as well as electricity to local customers, making them preferable to solar and wind farms in winter. In short, says Li Shuo of Greenpeace, an environmental group, China is trying to plug 21st century power sources into a 20th century power grid. Behind closed doors, though, officials are working to make the energy market a little more welcoming to green power.

Even more than the clean-air regulations or the renewables, it is China’s economic slowdown and the shift from heavy industry and construction to services that has been curbing demand for coal. Mr. Varro points out that China can hardly go on consuming energy-intensive goods like steel and cement the way it has done. In 2012, Chinese cement consumption amounted to 1,581 kilograms per person, compared with just 232kg in America. Nobody quite knows how much coal is burned in China. Misreporting is common; earlier this year, official statistics were amended to suggest that the country consumed 14 per cent more coal between 2000 and 2013 than had been thought. Yet, the quantity might now be falling.

Consumption seems to have dropped very slightly between 2013 and 2014. In the first seven months of 2015, China’s mines produced 5% less coal than they did during the same period last year. If this trend were to continue, it would make the government’s pledge to reach peak greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030 seem unduly modest. China will remain a heavy polluter. Though steel and cement factories will probably use less energy in future, ordinary people will doubtless consume more. As they grow richer, they demand air-conditioning, cars and bigger homes.

In 2012, the average city-dweller inhabited 33 square meters compared with 25 square meters a decade earlier. Still, the astonishing surge in dirty, coal-fired energy consumption has probably subsided, thinks Mr. Grubb. It might just be a little hard to see through the hazy, choking air. (Guardian)