To Slash CO2 And Air Pollution, China’s Coal Use Peaks

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A new study confirms what Climate Progress first reported in May 2015: China’s coal use appears to have peaked years ahead of schedule.

Leading climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern, currently at the London School of Economics, together with colleagues from Tsinghua University in Beijing, has an open-access article in the journal Nature Geoscience, “China’s post-coal growth.” The researchers conclude:

Slowing GDP growth, a structural shift away from heavy industry, and more proactive policies on air pollution and clean energy have caused China’s coal use to peak. It seems that economic growth has decoupled from growth in coal consumption.

They place China’s peak coal year in 2013, explaining, “China’s coal use dropped to 4.12 billion tons, a decrease of 2.9% in 2014, with another 3.6% increase in 2015,” while GDP grew roughly 7 percent both years.

The study includes the customary caveats about “ambiguities in the accuracy of China’s coal use data,” but notes that “the government has retrospectively revised statistics on the basis of more accurate accounting.” They point out that “for long-term perspective, it is not important whether the peak year is 2013 or 2014: What matters is the reversal in the trend.”

But is this really a permanent trend shift or “merely a temporary dip due to economic fluctuations,” as the study puts it? The authors note that there are three reasons to believe this is a trend reversal.

First, China’s economic slowdown and its shift away from heavy manufacturing “are long-term trends characterizing China’s new phase of economic development.” This is a key point we madelast year in a post on a new study from the Center for American Progress (where I am a Senior Fellow):

ChinaClimateCAP4

Second, China’s shift away from coal is part of a “long-term strategy” to respond to their terrible air pollution problems, as well as climate change. The authors note, “For the government, curbing air pollution is important aspect of maintaining political legitimacy.” Many Chinese experts in and out of the country made that same point to me during and after my visit to Beijing last June.

On the climate front, the Chinese government said back in November 2014 that it would cap coal use by 2020, as we reported. And that pledge came quickly after the breakthrough CO2 deal Chinese President Xi Jinping announced with Obama that same month, where we learned “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” China was always planning to peak CO2 (and coal) early.

Third, the authors point out that China has made leadership in clean energy a national priority. We’ve already seen China become a leader in solar manufacturing and deployment, wind manufacturing and deployment, and electric car and battery manufacturing and deployment. China now accounts for “one third of global investment in clean energy.”

But what about the fact that China kept building new coal plants in 2014 and 2015, which has left many new coal plants running at low capacity or not being used at all? As Greenpeace’s China “Energy Desk” explained last month, Beijing has responded by implementing much stronger policies to stop this expansion:

  • Placing a three-year moratorium on new coal mines
  • Ordering 13 provincial governments to stop approving new coal-fired power plants, and 15 others to stop building those already approved
  • Telling 28 of China’s 31 mainland provinces that all approvals for new coal plants should be suspended, thereby halting 90% of plants currently seeking approval

We will see in the coming months how well the provinces follow these orders, but according to the most recent official government statistics, compared to 2015, coal production fell 9.7 percent in the first half of 2016.

Lord Stern and his fellow authors note that “in transitioning to post-coal growth, China is following the path of affluent industrial economies” — albeit at a somewhat faster pace. They offer these charts:

China peak

Historical trajectories of economic development and coal consumption for the UK, U.S. and China ( data normalized for comparison; note differences in values on both axes). The x-axis shows the logarithm of per-GDP and the y-axis shows the logarithm of national coal consumption.

In the United States, coal use has been dropping like a … chunk of coal. If China follows suit, that will truly be a game-changer for the climate.

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