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China Will Cut Back Its Coal Use. What does it Mean for the United States?

China is getting sick of breathing dirty air. So the top brass there says that the country will cut output from its coal-burning power plants over the next three years. But what does it mean to the United States and is this really a concession?

The bottom line is that Chinese gross domestic output is down from 2013 levels: Instead of growing at 8 percent a year, it is about 6.9 percent — still excellent by most standards but not enough to sustain the type of coal consumption it had undergone. Plants there have been operating at about 50 percent of their capacity, considerably less than during its 10 percent growth years.

China’s emissions fell by 1.5 percent because it is burning less coal. In 2015, the International Energy Agency in Paris said that coal accounted for 70 percent of China’s electricity portfolio. That is 10 percent less than in 2011. Over the same time, it adds, wind and hydro power have played bigger roles there.

“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news: we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” said the agency’s Executive Director Fatih Birol. “(T)his is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

In 2015, International Energy Agency had said that coal demand would grow by 2.3 percent annually until 2018. It then said that coal would comprise 30 percent of the electricity generation market in 2040. It is now about 41 percent. To that end, Asia and the developing world will be the biggest consumers.

If China is to continue along its same trajectory, national leaders there insists that the globe’s economically advanced countries share their latest technologies with them by establishing a fund to enable such progress. At the same time, foreign exports of coal, and especially from the United States, are precipitously falling. That’s because Asia, generally, does not want to be dependent on other nations because that has had negative implications on its economy.

All of this is happening just as 175 nations met at the United Nations to commit to the COP21 global climate pact signed last December in Paris. China, the world’s biggest polluter, was among the signatories. The deal calls for nations to keep their carbon releases at levels that would prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius by mid-century.

As for China — and other developing nations — they have said publicly that their initiatives won’t begin in earnest until 2030. Until then, they want to focus more on economic growth.

The result, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is that the United States exported 74 million short tons in 2015. Those exports fell for the third straight year and they were 23 million short tons less than in 2014 and 50 million short tons less than the record volume set in 2012.

“In my opinion, if (China) needed the power, (China) would build them,” said IHS Energy coal expert Bob Hodges, in a New York Times story. “I think if you are Beijing, and you don’t need the power, you can delay them until you might need them. They are not scrapping them.”

Ken Silverstein is editor-in-chief of Business Sector Media, publisher of Environmental Leader and Energy Manager Today.

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