Beijing air pollution

This week, Beijing’s air pollution is way above safe levels again, the world’s largest coal company has been forced to change its water strategy, and the UN panel looking at options to act against climate change is expected to report that global levels of carbon pollution shot up rapidly in the past decade. 

These three occurrences have their roots in China’s insatiable appetite for coal. China burns about half of the world’s coal and is the most ‘coal-addicted’ country among the world’s top energy consumers. Its emissions from coal burning caused over half of the increase in the world’s carbon pollution between 2002 and 2012.

To illustrate how fast things have been moving in China’s energy system: in 2010 alone, the new coal-fired power plant capacity that China brought in was equal to all of Germany’s existing capacity.

It’s hardly surprising that the breakneck pace of change has come at enormous cost to public health and the environment. Not only suffocating the urban population and draining the country’s arid west of precious water resources, but also adding to the disruption of the Earth’s climate system. 

But driven by severe air pollution episodes and an increasingly informed and dissatisfied public the situation is changing fast, and to the good - with global implications which the US and EU need to recognise.

Just a couple of years ago, the idea that there was a limit to China’s growth in carbon pollution from coal seemed like science fiction. Now there’s fresh hope that it will happen. If recently introduced coal control measures are implemented in full, China’s emissions in 2020 could be close to a level consistent with keeping global warming below 2 degrees C. (That’s the ceiling we have to avoid exceeding if we want to avoid the worst climate impacts). New measures by China to further limit use of coal are also in the pipeline.

So what’s happening and why? 

As Greenpeace East Asia shows in a briefing released today, China’s headlong rush towards coal is approaching an end. To cut air pollution, coal burning is to be slashed in the country’s most populous eastern provinces. Twelve of China’s 34 provinces, that burn 44% of the country’s coal, are committed to control their coal use. Some, like Beijing, have pledged ambitious cuts as steep as 50% in only five years.

Coal control targets in Chinese Provinces (Source: National and provincial air pollution action plans.)

Together, the coal control measures by the 12 provinces mean reducing coal burn by around 350 million tonnes (Mt) by 2017 and 655 Mt by 2020, compared to earlier anticipated trends. In terms of carbon pollution, it will avoid around 700 million tonnes of CO2 in 2017 and 1,300 million tonnes in 2020. (To compare, 1,300 Mt is the same as Canada’s and Australia’s total emissions combined). 

Impact of the coal control measures on projected consumption. (source: Official energy statistics until 2012; Greenpeace projections based on past trends and announced policies.)

For the measures to be effective, though, requires ensuring that cutting coal use in China’s east doesn’t lead to emissions rising in the west. 

While it is air pollution concerns that have triggered the slow-down in growth of China’s coal use, it is water usage that’s likely to determine the pace of deceleration. That was confirmed last week in a meeting between Greenpeace and Shenhua, a Chinese state-owned enterprise that is the world’s largest coal company. 

Back in July 2013, Greenpeace released a report that exposed how one of Shenhua’s coal facilities in Inner Mongolia was aggressively extracting water from that arid region. Despite initial denials from the company, opposition by the local community and the risk of a water shortage for the coal plant itself eventually lead Shenhua to drop plans to extract more groundwater from the area.

Both the constraints of air quality and the scarcity of water send a clear message that China’s coal use is under increasing pressure from different angles. 

Internationally, China, perhaps more than any other country, now has the potential to be a game-changer during UN talks aimed at adopting a new climate treaty in Paris, in 2015. 

Taking action at home adds credibility to demands for action by others. But a major shift in China’s climate change negotiating strategy is also urgently required. If China does become more proactive and makes a significant pledge to binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020, its leadership could be the catalyst for more ambitious steps by all countries.

Li Shuo is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia and Kaisa Kosonen is a Senior Political Advisor for the climate and energy campaign for Greenpeace International.

Lead image © Greenpeace / Wu Di