Monday, 12 June 2017

Now that Trump has pulled USA out of Paris can China take a lead in fighting climate change?

Now that Donald Trump has pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement more attention has been focused on China's role in reducing carbon emissions (the title of a book of mine that has just been published). And it seems there is a good chance that China will be able to reduce its energy-related carbon emissions by as much as two-thirds by 2050.

Given China's apparently accelerating growth in output of carbon emissions, this does seem a strange conclusion to make. But only if we ignore recent trends and, perhaps most importantly the economic, industrial and political dynamics at play.
Recent carbon trends suggest that China is stabilising its carbon emissions earlier than projected by the Chinese Government. Independent evaluation of the carbon output in 2014, 2015 and 2016 indicate that during these years carbon dioxide emissions were stable and not increasing. There are three factors behind this turnaround.

First, economic growth is slowing. There are good reasons to suspect that this is part of a longer term trend, and growth is likely to fall further. Developing economies can see rapid increases in carbon emissions as they develop infrastructure eg roads, railways, bridges, buildings, that forms the basis of the economy. However as time goes on there is less return from these developments and they slow down. Second, again, as people accumulate facilities that we almost take for granted in the West, such as fridges or TVs, production of this equipment rapidly increases. Certainly there are still products where ownership is still much less than is the case in the West - motor vehicles is the most important item here for energy consumption, but still it is becoming the case that for many products the early growth has subsided down to production of replacements.

In addition to this the advantages of low labour costs, low land costs and cheaply available capital are declining for China leading towards a similar loss of advantage in exports of manufacturing products than has already occurred in the case of Japan and South Korea. There we are seeing lower rates of economic growth and also a shift towards a more service based economy. Indeed the main issue is not whether this shift is occurring, but whether it can be completed without the sort of economic collapse that occurred in Japan at the end of the 1980s and which produced a zero growth economy throughout the 1990s.
Indeed many people are worried that China has simply built up too much debt and that many 'zombie' companies are being kept alive with endlessly recycled loans. China may avoid an economic crash ( I hope so because its effects on the world economy could be terrible), but a further slowdown in economic growth seems inevitable. All of this will, of course reduce energy consumption.

China's per capita carbon footprint is just above the average level for the EU; higher than the UK, less than Germany. However, given that China's urban density is higher and its average building space per person a lot lower than the EU implies that China already has the capacity for a lot of energy efficiency improvements. The Government is improving its efforts on this front. Building energy efficinecy standards have been improved, although enforcement still lags behind. Local government needs to be made more accountable in order to improve environmental standards and protection in general. . So there is good reason to believe that China can greatly reduce, never mind stabilise, its energy consumption.

Then there is the second factor, the build-up of non-fossil energy sources. China has been rapidly expanding renewable energy in recent years such that in 2015, for example, half of the world's capacity of wind turbines and a third of the capacity of solar pv panels were installed in China. Hydro and nuclear power has also been expanding. Hydro power leads generation among non-fossil fuels so far followed by wind, then nuclear and solar. China now has the biggest market for, and is the biggest producer of, electric cars.

The third factor reducing carbon emissions in China is the increased pressure on the Chinese Government to achieve environmental objectives. The build-up in non-fossil fuels is driven partly by climate change considerations, but most of all by tremendous pressures to reduce the appalling levels of air pollution in the cities. A lot of this is caused by the burning of coal in the power stations. Because of a lower than expected increase in electricity consumption and also the increase in non-fossil fuel power plant, coal fired power plant in China have been operating at low capacity factors (meaning that they have been only been generating for about half the time in 2015 and 2016).

There are problems with incorporating variable renewables into the grid, and much more renewable energy has been 'load-shedded' (wasted) compared to western countries with much higher proportions of variable renewable energy on the grid. The system still involves coal fired power plant being given priority over wind and solar in dispatch. Although there has recently been a drive to build nuclear power stations there are also strong pressures to increase safety standards - something which is likely to increase costs as in the west and slow growth in nucrear power. Various plans for nuclear power plant in the inland areas have been cancelled due to opposition. Large hydro schemes have been criticised for displacing large numbers of people and their expansion is likely to slow in coming years. However the fall in costs of wind and solar is likely to counterbalance these trends leading to large expansion of these sources.

Certainly studies done by the China Centre for Renewable Energy indicate that renewable energy on its own could generate the bulk of China's energy by 2050 -assuming of course that energy consumption can be stabilised, something that seems likely as China's economic growth rates fall and also China's population growth rate falls off. Large reductions in carbon emissions from China seem probable by 2050.

In conclusion, much needs to be done to improve China's policies and strategies, but there is more hope at present that China will lead the way towards carbon reductions than the USA. Given the authoritarian nature of China's Government this can only be regarded as a great embarrassment for democrats around the world.

You can read much more about this discussion buy buying a copy of the book 'China's Role in Reducing Carbon Emissions' published by Routledge. An electronic version can be purchased for £25. See

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