Last week China announced what might be a rare bit of good news on climate change – or is it too good to be true?
The Chinese government State Council has set a cap on total energy use for 2011-2015, which it claims will cause Chinese coal consumption to peak below 4 billion tonnes per year, a target that has been rumored for a while. According to the Chinese government, coal-fired electricity generation would continue to grow at a slower pace while the steel industry would suffer.
Last year China burned 3.9 billion tonnes of coal, a 163% increase since 2000 and nearly as much as the rest of the world combined. Greenpeace recently identified the projected expansion of coal mining in northwestern Chinese provinces as the world’s largest “carbon bomb” (followed by Australian coal export expansion).
The Australian coal industry is (reasonably) skeptical that China is serious because the government could have difficulty enforcing the consumption limits; because China uses an idiosyncratic definition for a tonne of coal; because China is investing in unconventional gas as well as coal; and because China may not be willing to do anything that could compromise economic growth. Nevertheless, the Chinese government says it will do “whatever it takes” to meet the target. And as Beijing chokes on its own smog, economic growth purely for the sake of it is no longer looking as feasible or attractive as it once was.
The new development is the strongest signal yet that China could begin to get serious about climate action. It should shame governments of the developed world into acting in a manner consistent with our greater wealth, per-capita emissions, and historical responsibility for the emissions that have already accumulated in the atmosphere. Rich countries like Australia should phase out fossil fuels as fast as possible, and help developing countries follow in our footsteps. In addition to this ethical imperative, action is ultimately in our economic interests. Around a fifth of Australia’s coal exports last year were bought by China. Last week’s announcement should be a wake-up call for Australia to get out of the fossil fuel business.
Closer to home, there is an unrelated piece of good news today. Bloomsberg New Energy Finance modeling says new wind farms are now cheaper per megawatt-hour than new-build coal- and gas-fired electricity generation, though renewables still need government support to compete with existing fossil-fuelled generation. The same study found the big four Australian banks are unlikely to finance new coal without a significant risk premium, if at all.
It’s time for Australia to show China that democracy can do better than state socialism.