Hooked on the black stuff: can China kick its coal addiction?
The latest round of figures on global greenhouse gas emissions makes depressing reading.
Last month the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that, after a 3.2 percent rise of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) emission to 31.6 gigatonnes (Gt) in 2011, the world is running out of time to prevent catastrophic climate change.
"When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius (by 2050), which would have devastating consequences for the planet," Fatih Birol, IEA's chief economist told Reuters.
The IEA's 450 Scenario (so named because an CO2 atmospheric concentration of 450 parts per million is thought to mark the point where runaway climate change could start to occur), requires global CO2e emissions to peak 32.6-Gt no later than 2017, which would offer a 50 percent chance of limiting the increase in the average global temperature to 2°C.
A new analysis of China's carbon inventories, just published in the journal Nature Climate Change, suggest that global emission may already be past the 32.6-Gt mark because the country's national CO2e emission total is less than the sum of the 30 provincial CO2e emissions totals – to the tune of 1.4-Gt in 2010.
The director of Climate Change Research Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has responded to this by saying that, due to big differences in calorific content of China's many grades of coal, the country's CO2e emissions "may be 10-20 percent less than the result based on IPCC methodology".
The trend is nonetheless daunting and the 0.6 percent decrease in emissions from OECD countries last year did little to offset the 6.1 percent growth in countries outside the rich set, led by China (9.3 percent up) and India (8.7 percent up) according to the IEA. In both case rising emissions are primarily down to a seemingly ceaseless rise in coal consumption.
This is particularly worrying in China where the authors of the Nature Climate Change paper say differences in reported coal consumption and processing at the provincial level were the main contributors to the discrepancy in energy statistics.
"I would say the biggest concern about the accuracy and reliability of (China's emissions) data is coal - and that comes from too many small coal mines supplying small enterprises and industrial plants," Yang Fuqiang, a former Chinese energy official and senior adviser for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing told Reuters. “They have no monitoring systems and, generally speaking, they are also avoiding tax.”
China's provincial miscreants are, however, relatively small players in the bigger picture of China's coal dependency. The fact of the matter is that the country's continuing strong rise in coal consumption is largely planned.
The day before the IEA came out with its latest global emissions numbers, Fang Junshi, head of the Coal Department of China's National Energy Administration (NEA), was happily telling representative of the state media what we can expect in terms of increased coal consumption in the next few years.
Under 12th Five Year Plan (2011-15) China is investing 500 billion yuan (USD79 billion) per year in its coal industry. Fang said the industry's development will focus on cleaner technology that will reduce carbon emissions but, like China's carbon accounts, that statement just doesn't add up.
Clean coal is still pretty much an oxymoron. Carbon capture and storage is being tested in China and other places, but the technology has yet to prove itself and it is inconceivable that it will be widely deployed by the Chinese (or anyone else) in the next three and a half years.