Yves here. Not that the US is making great strides towards reducing its dependence on fossil fuels, but some readers took umbrage at the notion that China is retreating from its earlier plans to move towards greener energy sources and cut its use of coal. Towards its close, this story cites a Reuters report that China has been adding coal-fueled generator capacity.
By Irina Slav, a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. Originally published at OilPrice
When the news broke that a startup funded by Bill Gates had succeeded in generating temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius using solar energy, it dealt a blow to coal. After all, heavy industries are one of the last strongholds of the fossil fuel because of its ability to produce super high temperatures that solar and wind couldn’t even come close to–until now. But even with that solar breakthrough, coal, dirty or not, is far from dead.
A Steady Decline in Consumption
The cheapest of the fossil fuels is still a popular one among smelters and power utilities. Its consumption on a global scale is indeed declining, but this decline only began in the current decade. Recently, a study projected that this year will see a record coal use drop of 3% globally, but the end of coal is still not in sight.
“It is clear that the economics of coal production no longer make sense in many parts of the world where it is simply cheaper to generate electricity from natural gas and renewables,” a climate change researcher told the BBC last month.
Yet there are many other parts of the world where coal still makes the best economic sense for a variety of reasons, including lack of access to renewable technology and the funds to invest in it.
Enter China’s Belt and Road Initiative …
One Belt, One Road, Powered with Coal
The Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious international investment program devised by Beijing that involves infrastructure projects worth a total of $12 trillion and spanning as many as 126 countries.
Most of these are developing countries and many have yet to join the renewable crusade against climate change. But coal is widely available and cheap, so it will power the industrialization of these countries with China’s financial help.
A study by Global Energy Monitor cited by Corporate Knights estimates that the countries covered by the Belt and Road initiative could end up producing 66% of the world’s carbon emissions by 2050. That would increase their current level of accounting for 28% of global CO2 emissions and would cancel out the rest of the world’s efforts in restraining temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius.
But is coal the single culprit for emissions? Hardly.
An Ironic Twist that Smells of Gas
A recent research paper from the Global Carbon Project had disappointing news for the millions of people worried about climate change. This year, the authors warned, our carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high despite everything that is being done to arrest the rise in these emissions.
The culprit: natural gas.
The data compiled by the GCP researchers revealed that natural gas has replaced coal as the biggest driver of carbon dioxide emissions growth in the last few years. It has also become, because of its abundance and low price, the biggest source of electricity generation in one of the biggest polluters, the United States.
“Natural gas may produce fewer carbon emissions than coal, but that just means you cook the planet a bit more slowly,” a research director with the Center for International Climate Research told The New York Times. “And that’s before even getting into the worries about methane leaks,” Glen Peters, who helped compile the data for the CGI report, added.
The Silver Lining
Carbon dioxide emission growth is slowing down and this is largely thanks to the reduction in coal use globally. This year, emissions from coal declined an estimated 0.9%, which while not a particularly large number is nevertheless a significant one because the decline was unexpected.
In Europe, coal use is falling dramatically.
During the first half of 2019, according to Carbon Brief, it fell by an “unprecedented” 19% across the continent. In some European countries such as Italy, the UK, and Spain, coal now accounts for less than 10% of the energy mix.
Coal power plants are being retired in the U.S. as well, and coal production is falling.
The Energy Information Administration reported this month that while lower-cost coal-fired plants will survive in the future as well, higher-cost ones will continue to be retired as they cannot compete with cheap gas-fired alternatives.
According to the authority, between 2019 and 2030, some 90 GW of coal generation capacity will be retired, most of it high-cost capacity. This year and next, coal power plants will account for 25% and 22% of the energy mix, respectively. Coal production, too, will fall this year by 8% because of this drop in demand in the power utility sector.
Meanwhile, however, China is still building coal power plants and so is India.
As its economy began to slow down a couple of years ago, China, as Reuters reported recently, has become more willing to relinquish some of its climate goals in favour of cheap energy. Since the start of 2018, the country has built 429. GW of new coal capacity and another 121 GW under construction.
India is another major coal user although consumption has been slowingthere. The reason for this, however, is not a concerted effort to reduce the use of coal, but rather the slowdown in economic growth.
Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. It is also the cheapest. In fact, it epitomizes the phrase “dirt cheap”. As such, it will not go away easily in developing economies that simply cannot afford to be too picky about the source of their energy when demand is rising fast.
Due to the opaqueness of Chinese policy making, its very hard to know what is going on with energy policy, but I had a conversation about this with an acquaintance who works in an NGO in Beijing on energy matters, and she seemed to think its something of a ‘blip’ caused by short term factors. In other words, China has temporarily reversed course in order to keep the price of energy down and make up for a temporary shortfall in base energy. Its not seen as a permanent policy. The have definitely reversed supporting renewables, but most observers seem to think this isn’t permanent either, they are simply reviewing the current state of technology before deciding which renewable basket they should put their eggs in (this is very common practice in China, where they often throw money at projects in a scattergun fashion, and then sit back for a few years and see which ones work. When they make that decision, they go all-in).
Without proof, I would guess there are two other factors at work:
1. China has prioritised clean air, with the result that a lot of older, dirty factories have been shut or converted to natural gas. It may be that this has produced a surplus of coal looking for a home. For political reasons, China is always very reluctant to generate unemployment in the poorer, inland regions where coal is king.
2. The Chinese nuclear industry seems to have stalled. China has thrown money at a very wide variety of different designs and technology in nuclear power over the past 2-3 decades – they’ve built one or two of nearly ever commercially available reactor, and have invested a lot in new generation technologies. Normally in China, this means they are deciding which one is the ‘winner’, and they’ll throw mega resources at churning them out. But it simply hasn’t happened at the scale originally intended (so far as I’m aware) – most likely because every design has proven problematic for one reason or another and they’ve decided to fall back on what they know – coal.
I admittedly focused on the in-China use question when the cross post is almost entirely about the impact of the Belt and Road initiative on coal use.
However, it appears that China is getting permissive about coal:
China’s coal imports are also up. From Reuters in October:
Recall that this is occurring even though economic growth isn’t so hot by Chinese standards. From what I can tell, electrical production is up only >5% YoY
Thanks Yves, yes, its true that the figures don’t support my contention #1, although there may be localised surpluses (a key limitation on coal use in China is the capacity of the road/rail network. The main reason China imports so much coal despite its huge reserves is that it simply can’t deliver enough from its inland sources to coastal cities. But its far more likely as you suggest that cost/surplus situations is not the primary driver. There is indeed a policy favouring coal, the only real question is whether its a short term fix, or a complete change in overall strategy.
Possibly relevant graphic:
I think PK said that for China, developing the costly infrastructure required for natural gas was a burden that partly explains why they are so invested in coal. China is worried about atmospheric contamination by coal plants and they have developed improvements reducing very much nitric and sulfur emissions in their newest coal plants. Also, their newest plants work with higher water temperatures and are more efficient than traditional plants in the US or Europe. I believe that at least part, and probably a big part, of the new capacity added in the last two years was brougth to replace older plants. Yet, China shows no will to abate coal usage while they are in a infrastructure investment spree as a Keynesian tool to fight economic stalling.
China is hardly the only country to have ignored or delayed efforts to tackle climate change in order to fulfill their strategic objectives. For instance, shortly after signing the Tokyo Agreement, Spain, ignoring foreign calls, initiated a building spree (residential, commercial, infrastructure) that resulted in an enormous increase of CO2 emissions… financed with transfers from… ahem, so worried austere Germany. Besides, China has been a leader in the development of solar energy and energy storage though now these efforts are loosing steam. On the countrary Spain has long been a laggard on solar (while leader in eolic) but now is one of the most dynamic investors in solar. If we examine sepparately the development of energy policies in each country we find a strange cacophony of investments and disinvestments that depend very much on the political colour of the party, on self or not no self-imposed monetary constraints, and on vested interests.
The odds of western countries managing to influence China’s leadership into a less coal dependent economy are more or less similar to the odds of the COP influencing the US to reduce investment in oil and gas shale. The same applies to India, Brazil, Australia, Russia… or Gambia. The COP is now preaching to the choir in Madrid. The idea is that trying to single out a particular country is pointless and there is always another country that serves as justification for a why me? answer. In this sense this article is good enough to signal that it is not all about China and coal.
Current political and geopolitical developments leave very little room to tackle climate change. Whether our cosmic leaders and influencers are able to redirect it is highly questionable. Worse, it is not only about leadership. One example is about an interesting poll that Lamber highlighted yesterday in the Biosphere section of the water cooler: many don’t even want to talk about it. Another example is my own experience preaching to the choir in a country where, according to the eurobarometer, 85% respondents say to be highly concerned about climate change. I try hard to feel positively.
Wow, this was a rant.
A rant is justified. There is little or nothing that can be done with a nation as large as China makes a decision like this. And before anyone says ‘its all making things we import!’, this isn’t actually true – most coal in China is for domestic energy use (for homes, industry and electricity).
When you look at all the things that must happen to avert climate catastrophe it becomes sadly obvious that humans completely lack the capacity to address them. Even minor moves in the right direction are nullified by population growth. Often over the past 50 years ( I’m 60) solutions have been proposed in regards to pollution and the climate that are based on a certain percent of people being part of the solution. This type of projection based on the percentages is no longer even relevant. We have passed the point where the static number of people who will oppose any change, whatever the cost, is large enough to cancel out all the people who would support and participate in a solution. The 1%, that have brought us to this point, are richer than ever. They have plan and the rest of us are not part of it.
You are correct, man is incapable as he was never designed to rule himself and live independent of Gods rulership. Fortunately this problem is about to be rectified and rulership returned to God through his Kingdom in the very near future.
Frase’s “Quadrant IV.” Hierarchy + Scarcity = Exterminism
The richest 10% of people on Earth emit half of human GHGs and control most of the rest; the richest billion emit about 80%, and population growth is only happening among the poorest, who have virtually no effect on the climate crisis or other global ecological problems. Growth in our numbers has almost nothing to do with this crisis.
Consumption Dwarfs Population as Main Environmental Threat
Massive peaceful revolution has already started; the situation is dire and we’re running out of time, but it’s still possible for us to remove the corrupt insane from power and reverse course.
>As its economy began to slow down a couple of years ago, China, as Reuters reported recently, has become more willing to relinquish some of its climate goals in favour of cheap energy.
Keynes famously said “in the long run we’re all dead”… however, I’m pretty darn sure that by “all” he didn’t mean the entire human race, just his contemporaries. But apparently homo economis is taking it literally.
I wonder if the “To Serve Humans” book from that famous sci-fi movie included the possibility that we would self-cook.
Coal was never quite dead globally. Famously renewable Germany leaned heavily on coal to provide baseload in the absence of nuclear and natgas. Africa and South Asia can’t afford anything else, and they have the greatest growth potential and need for energy. Continental-scale natgas transport takes years to come online, and countries like China take their time so as to negotiate better deals (see e.g. Turkmenistan pipeline “line D” expansion). In many other places pipelines afte blocked due to geopolitics.
Nukes take even longer and are widely considered uneconomical due to the long payback time vs losing out to future technology.
Solar and wind are being built, but are costly to integrate into the grid, have limitations, and need Govt help, which is hard to justify after US is back on the fossil fuel development bandwagon, making low-medium global fuel prices a national policy goal. Batteries are not currently economical except for very specific high solar scenarios (daily use of 2-4 hours storage in an always sunny climate).
Coal, possibly the worst environmentally, continues by default.
Ho hum. More of the same ol’ ARF (anti-renewable fanatic) nonsense. Renewables come in lots of varieties—dispatchable, variable, solar PV, 24/7 CSP, clothesline paradox energies, onshore and offshore wind, hydro, micro-hydro, geothermal, muscle power, some tidal, wave, and OTEC… They can be integrated into the grid with little or no trouble unless variable RE reaches a very high percentage of the grid without enough dispatchable RE, complementarity (of wind and solar, eg) distributed generation, grid smartness, demand response, or storage, and it would be really, really dumb to do it without those. You’d have to really try hard to do it that stoopid.
Yes, strong government action is necessary, since it’s been made utterly clear that corporations and the oligarchic capitalist system are not willing to reduce profits enough to avoid ending civilization. What’s hard—in fact impossible—to justify is the psychopathic behavior shown for decades by the rich, right wing rulers of the US and other countries. Equally obvious, the completely corrupt corporate duopoly party of all Republicans and most Democrats need to be removed from power to accomplish what we need.
Batteries are currently economical in Britain, Germany, and almost everywhere else even with equally low solar insolation. They’re dropping incredibly rapidly in price, and providing power at huge savings in multiple applications—EVs that cost less to run and less in total over their lifetime than very inferior ICEVs, (and soon will be cheaper to buy as well) and in small and large applications like the Tesla big battery, which has saved its users millions, and paid back its investment so fast its being expanded by 50%. They’re also going to be easily integrated into the grid, but they’re not the only or even the main form of storage.
Coal is dying, and gas will be soon. They’ve only been kept alive this long by the corruption, lying and manipulation by fossil fuel corporations and the party-and-three-quarters they own.
Scroll down to this comment for sources and more.
I agree with most of what you are saying, but in the developing world, coal has in unfortunate fact not been dying. China alone, went on a truly unprecedented construction of coal electric plants, peaking in roughly 2005-2015. (this generation likely to remain in service thru mid century). China can now afford other technologies, but they are renowned for being cost conscious, yet they are still deploying more coal plants today – which does not support the theory that it is uneconomical by the blunt measures used in the developing world (i.e. no environmental costs counted).
Elsewhere, like South Asia, there is even less $ per person. There coal is often the only available option. This is a grim reality. I’m not trying to shoot down the goal of getting rid of fossil fuels, which I agree with, just saying that to actually do it you have to get from point A to point B and that involves facing resistance such as the fact that much of the world, who outnumber us by a lot, are going a different way for reasons of their own – so the question ought to be, how would one change that without denying them the same development opportunities we have?
Yes, because of corruption and screwed up profit structures, China has been building more new coal burners to replace their old dirty ones (though they’ve also canceled and closed MANY, and that’s becoming the rule.) But they’re burning less coal in each one because it’s too expensive and isn’t needed, and the flabbergasting stupidity of that is becoming clear even to the corrupt.
A lot of the rest of the world has been building clean safe renewable energy (RE) faster than the US. At least 65 countries have mostly-RE grids, with 10 more getting close to that, 22 at or near 100% RE, and 40 more over 70% that could reach 100% in 3 years by treating it as the emergency it is. The 4-country, 30 million people Nordic grid is 2/3 RE, 1/3 RE primary energy and rapidly increasing. A collection of countries in Central and South America have high RE% including a number at or near 100%. Some are trying to form a Nordic-like grid to share energy and reduce redundancy, (distributed generation and complementarity of varied RE sources).
The developing world has actually put us to shame on this, though yes, there are serious political problems. There are no technical problems that would stop us from getting to at least 90% RE for the world. A growing number of studies show how to do this AT LOWER COST THAN TODAY’S ENERGY, in fact that’s almost inevitable, since wind and solar are already cheaper than nukes, coal and most gas in most places, and are still dropping fast in price. As are batteries.
There are only 2 ways for the world to go, and whichever it is, we all go together. We can drastically cut back on energy use by the rich, renewablize what we need, ration and prioritize wisely, and contribute trillions of dollars to the energy transition of poor countries, or we can watch civilization unravel while billions of people with nowhere to go die in violence and chaos—during our lifetimes and those of our children. At this point, with the lunatic right wing and fossil fuel corporations refusing to act rationally, (did you see that Aramco is going public next week in the richest such move in history??) that means we must, by any peaceful means necessary, remove them from power. Every city and state has to declare an emergency and use whatever powers are available. As soon as we can recapture this country from the insane ones the US needs to do the same.
Africa Could Power a Green Revolution
“With a thriving off-grid solar market and hundreds of millions of people waiting for electricity, the continent offers huge potential for renewables. East African countries have pioneered off-grid solar, laying out a model that other African countries could follow.”
Where is all the Chinese research on using every phase of coal cleanly? It’s a good way to understand the dynamics of a decentralized grid if ever there was one. Each potbelly in China could be used to scrub and capture all the smoke, particles, and toxics that coal produces. Mountains I’m sure. We know there are things like mercury in coal ash. What else? Places that coal fired plants have polluted with all their coal waste here in the US are fenced off. No effort has been made to determine how to detoxify, use safely, sequester, compost or mine for elements. Why not? If the Chinese have no other option that to use coal, they should start doing it in a manner that contains the pollution, perhaps separating and recycling it. We don’t have time for them to just ignore this problem – that’s a dead business model. It has to be addressed. And, in China, it could literally become an industry to replace old industry.
Everything You Think You Know About Coal in China Is Wrong
This is from 2017. Just to put some background on the issue.
very informative link, lots of stuff in there…
one is that China was phasing out construction of previous generation coal plants (“subcritical” in figure 3). that generation also had crappy control of non carbon pollutants (NOx, SOx, solids), and poor energy efficiency. The graph fig3 shows the phaseout (in new construction) was just about fully completed right around 2016, which is one reason the overall rate of improvement slowed down.
Of course energy demand is still increasing and new plants of every type are built. European levels of per-capita energy use, times China population . . .
Economic growth is the result of net surplus energy. Modern civilization requires an increasing energy supply just to maintain itself. If there is not enough excess energy for growth the economic system will collapse. Every last drop of oil and lump of coal will be used until:
a) there is not enough energy for further extraction and processing
b) civilization collapses
c) climate changes fries us
d) nuclear war erupts over diminishing resources
If you think that “renewable energy” is a viable solution ask yourself why pro-climate countries
such as Germany is razing villages for coal, or Canada is pursuing tar sands, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.
Excess energy causes waste, corruption, inequality and tyranny as well as the obvious horrific health and ecological harm it does. It’s called the resource curse. A stable supply is all that’s needed in a healthy, egalitarian society that has enough energy to meet its needs. We can achieve that in a decade or less, if we can stop the lunatic right wing’s lying and manipulation and remove them from power with a massive, global, peaceful revolution.
By ridding ourselves of that corruption, and the ownership of governments by psychopathic corporations and malignantly narcissistic mbillionaires, we can speed the transition to efficiency, wiser lives and clean safe renewable energy and can probably still save much of what we love. We don’t have much time though, and have to act massively and immediately. A comprehensive emergency Green New Deal, radically equalizing, providing the needs of everyone rather than the whims of a very few will revolutionize civilization as we need to.
> Bitcoin mining consumes enormous amounts of electricity, which is why miners seek out locations that offer cheap energy. The Ordos mine was set up in 2014, making it China’s oldest large-scale bitcoin mining facility. Bitmain acquired it in 2015. It’s powered by electricity mostly from coal-fired power plants. Its daily electricity bill amounts to $39,000. Bitmain also operates other mines in China’s remote areas, like the mountainous Yunnan province in the south and the autonomous region of Xinjiang in the west.
An international treaty to ban cryptocurrencies whose rarity is based on make-work is in order.
After efficiency, wind and solar are the cheapest energy sources in most of the world, and that area is growing as their prices continue their astounding decline. Even new wind and solar are now cheaper than most old coal and increasingly, old gas. Batteries are also getting cheaper than gas peakers, which they replace, doing a better job of ramping up when needed.
Because of local corruption / profit structure, China is junking a lot of its old, dirty coal burners, and building new, more efficient ones. But they burn less and less coal in each one. The energy is being replaced by wind and solar, and some gas for now, though that won’t last long as gas prices fluctuate and inevitably rise, and wind, solar—including 24/7 concentrated solar power—geothermal, and battery prices continue to fall. Many coal and gas projects have already been canceled in favor of W&S—even though fossil and fissile fuels get many times the subsidies and externalities clean safe renewable energy gets…
Solar price down 85% in past 7 years
Wind price down 66% in past 7 years (2009-2016; it continues)
No country is shifting to clean safe renewable energy as fast as it should but where corruption doesn’t rule and governments aren’t essentially owned by fossil fuel corporations, fossil fuel use is down, emissions are dropping, efficiency and renewables are up. However, for civilization and millions of threatened species to survive, we have to force governments and corporations to move at least 6 times faster. It will take a global peaceful revolution but it needs to be done.
Are renewables real the solution?:
Sorry, but Peter’s been lied to. Dozens of studies and the practical real world experience of scores of countries say s/he’s wrong. Peter should please do some real research before posting any more nonsense and lies made up, focus-group tested and spread by hundreds of millions of dollars by the fossil fuel and nuclear industries and lunatic right wing. The deceptive Krap about poor people, for example, is right out of a campaign funded by the Koch brother/s: (In fact I’ve read virtually all his arguments essentially word for word a thousand times (literally).)
KOCH—THE NEW $10M/YR CAMPAIGN to hide the fact that FFs are terrible for poor people.
“A new report has found that transitioning to a clean energy economy would be an economic boon to the United States, increasing employment, reducing costs to consumers, and benefiting investors.”
“The report, from NextGen Climate America, showed that investment in efficiency, renewable sources of electricity, and fuel switching — such as moving from fossil fuel-powered cars to electric vehicles — would add a million jobs by 2030, and roughly 2 million jobs by 2050, while increasing GDP by $290 billion and improving household income. The researchers looked at scenarios that would reduce emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.”
Meanwhile, fossil fuels already cause millions of deaths and billions in health costs, and will destroy civilization and cause millions of species’ extinction if we keep burning them. Subsidies and externalities for FFs cost the world $5.2 trillion a year now; the cost of the damage they’ll be doing in a decade will be incalculable, and poor people are already bearing most of the costs in money, disease, death and homelessness for a problem overwhelmingly caused by rich people. The Koch’s coal- and chemical-based empire is going to crumble very soon and they’re desperately clinging and clawing to keep it going as long as possible, no matter what it does to the world—and ultimately, obviously, to them. It’s criminally insane to run such a monstrous campaign, and to take part in it is… Well, wait 10 years and see how people judge those who helped spread the lies.
Even if we ignored all the many, many, serious and intractable problems with nukes, they’re simply too expensive and take too long. Whether people like it or not, they will play no useful part in this crisis. Fortunately, renewables are ready to provide all the energy humanity needs.
Peter’s other points are equally false and irresponsible. The opinion s/he cited is just that, and attempts to discredit scientific studies and that real world experience by implying things, aka JAQing off—Just Asking Questions—a despicable approach to the crisis. Yes, it’s going to cost a lot. About as much to build a renewable energy system, and a national US grid to carry it, as the US military has spent directly on wars over oil since 2000. When all needed changes are considered, and especially if further lies and exercise of deceptive and manipulative political power delay us further, it may cost more. Note the phrase “needed changes”, however. Those are changes we need to make–for the survival of civilization. Are Peter and the corporations selling his arguments seriously suggesting we first spend time haggling over the price?
Midway upthread was mentioned “clothesline paradox energies”. For those wondering what that might refer to, here is an article by Steve Baer called The Clothesline Paradox.
I’ve been looking for a source to explain the clothesline paradox.
People might also want to know that Steve Baer was a leader of the appropriate technology movement (from the mid-70s to late 80s?) that laid foundations of practical development of non-PV solar, wind, and other benign methods. CoEvolution Quarterly, the Whole Earth Catalog, and Rain Magazine were its communiques. A road not taken… to all our misfortune.
“the countries covered by the Belt and Road initiative could end up producing 66% of the world’s carbon emissions”
Are these countries more or less than 66% of the world’s population?
“China has signed cooperational document[s] on the belt and road initiative with 126 countries and 29 international organisations.”
My guess would be yes.