China met Carbon Intensity Goals 3 Years Early, but it Isn’t Nearly Enough

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

I am not a fundamentalist in any other area of life. But I am a carbon dioxide fundamentalist.

Well, you can add methane and some other gases.

The point is that CO2 emissions is the only issue that matters in speaking of climate change. It is a heat-trapping gas and the more we put into the atmosphere, the hotter the planet will get over time. That means melting all land ice, massive rises in sea level over time, extreme weather (more intense hurricanes and cyclones, long-term drought in some places, increased flooding in others). Delta river valleys like that in Louisiana, or the Delta in Egypt, or the country of Bangladesh, are doomed over time already.

We are driving gas-guzzling cars, and burning coal to get electricity, and eating a lot of beef; we are endangering our children and grandchildren. We have to stop.

My carbon fundamentalism means that I’m not against nuclear reactors the way many environmentalists are. I personally think they are costly and unpopular and that wind and solar prices are falling so fast as to make them already obsolete. But I’d rather people get electricity from nuclear than from coal. Like, much, much rather.

And my carbon fundamentalism is why I am not impressed at the statement of the Chinese government that it has met its 2020 goal on carbon intensity (carbon dioxide emissions per economic activity) three years early.

I am not impressed because while it is praiseworthy to increase economic activity, as China has done, but not to have increased carbon dioxide emissions commensurate with the new activity at the rate that would have been common ten years ago, it is still an optical illusion.

Because global carbon dioxide emissions increased 2% in 2017 after having been flat in 2014-16.

And China and the developing countries were the reason for the increase.

And remember that this is a zero sum game. The world is putting 37 billion metric tons of CO2 up there every year. That’s cumulative. It is like bringing big piles of dirt in a pick-up truck and dumping it in your front yard several times every year, to the point where your home is being buried. You wake up to the fact that soon you won’t be able to get into your house, or maybe even find it. You need to stop bringing in those big piles of dirt, now. If that was your new goal, you wouldn’t count it as a success if you carried more dirt with fewer trips this year.

China accounts for a whopping 1/3 of global carbon emissions.

Now, what is admirable is that China is dedicating itself to a big expansion in electricity generated by wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, and that it has reduced the percentage of its electricity generated by coal from 80% to 60%, and plans to develop no new coal plants by 2030.

It is putting $367 billion into renewables expansion, with high density transmission lines and masses of new wind and solar farms.

That admirable investment is the opposite of what the Trump administration in the US is doing.

But, it is not enough. Coal use actually increased very slightly in 2017 in China. As in the US, there is a coal lobby in China that fights this reduction, consisting of state plant managers and masses of coal miners and other workers in the industry, on whose good will the Chinese Communist Party depends.

China can’t be increasing its emissions annually, and neither can the US. Most CO2 pollution is coming from 14 countries.

Any carbon fundamentalist will tell you that it is on these 14 countries we must concentrate. And the emissions are the important number, and they have to go down.



Bonus video:

Australia ABC News: “China’s struggle to kick its coal habit”

13 Responses

  1. Nuclear is a dead end. The amount of carbon emitted through the production of all the concrete necessary to contain the nuclear reaction almost equals the amount of carbon created by coal generation plants. Concrete is a huge carbon dioxide creator and unless you want nukes without containment (Chernobyl anyone) they require huge carbon expenditure’s. Same goes for huge hydro. The Hoover Dam concrete is still setting, and releasing carbon, 90 years after construction. Solar and wind are the only non-carbon solutions we currently have.

    • Hi, Mark. If you are an engineer in the field I am glad to bow to your expertise.

      What you are saying is not however in the literature. At 66 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, nuclear (including construction) is more carbon intensive than wind or solar. It is however substantially less carbon intensive than all fossil fuels. Hydroelectric is estimated at 13 grams CO2 per kilowatt hour.

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      • And mainly in the developed world the fight over nuclear is about when to close existing plants. I’m a huge fan of delaying their closing to buy time for the renewables expansion.

    • I do not think that nuclear power should be written off yet. There are many lines of research going on to overcome the disadvantages of nuclear power. It is an issue that should be reevaluated at least every 5 years.

      • Curt,
        I believe that the future of nuclear is small, local generators that leverage advances like pebble-bed or other approaches that eliminate the 3-Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl-type risks.

        and i think the future of electricity Transmission is local grids. The national integrated smart super grids are just too vulnerable.

    • Mark, you have it wrong on concrete. Making cement, a key ingredient of concrete involves huge energy consumption, and releases large amounts of CO2 by chemical reactions. Concrete does however slowly absorb CO2 over decades. Re warming emissions from hydro – this is largely in the form of methane from shallow large area lakes behind dams – where plant material accumulates and decomposes. In tropical conditions, some dams emit so much methane that they have a higher emission profile than coal fired plant.

  2. How about offshore nuclear powered desalinization plants. Even ship based ones for crisis to crisis mobility. Capetown could use one right now.

    Note: I have no expertise in any of the technologies that would involve. But a little pie-in-the-sky from a layman can’t do much damage.

  3. mark kaufmann, yes nuclear production emits a lot of carbon. But it uses less than a coal power plant per kilowatt hour generated.

    The Chinese have wanted access to central Asian natural gas for a long time. The pipelines still haven’t been built. The main point of the proposed TAPI pipeline in the 1990s was so that China could ship LNG from Southern Pakistan to China. Sadly this pipeline too hasn’t been built.

    NG is far less carbon intensive than the carbon powerplants China currently operates; or the ones that India currently operates.

    My hope is that the NG pipelines are built quickly.
    The major obstacle to Wind and Solar is energy storage. Dams are extensively used to store energy. As Mark said dam concrete results in large CO2 emissions.

    Should the world spend more R&D in next generation building materials?

  4. i use the term fundamentalist to describe going back to the fundamentals. progressive means going foreword to…well….nuclear power is dangerous.

    • If they replace coal with nat gas, they are reducing emissions by half, which isn’t bad as a stop-gap measure. In the hierarchy of carbon fundamentalism, coal is the first devil that must be exorcised.

  5. Natural gas worries me as a fuel not so much because of what happens when it’s burned for lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal produces, but because of incidental releases of the much more heat-trapping gas methane during its production and distribution.

    Every time that I see the price of natural gas drop because of advances in fracking or other production methods, I see producers rubbing their chins and making the calculation that it’s that much less worth it to pay to check their thousands of miles of pipes and fittings for small or mid-sized leaks.

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