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Despite constant reports of China's soaring coal burn, the country's carbon emissions are falling. Photo: coal power plant near one of Beijing's 'Ring Roads' by Bret Arnett via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Despite constant reports of China's soaring coal burn, the country's carbon emissions are falling. Photo: coal power plant near one of Beijing's 'Ring Roads' by Bret Arnett via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Is China's emissions slump real - or are they making it up?

David Toke

17th May 2015

Cynical western media are pouring cold water on reports of China's declining carbon emissions, writes David Toke. The trouble is, the cross-sectoral statistics that demonstrate the reductions are actually rather convincing. Maybe journalists should be asking different questions - like just how well is the US performing?

The Chinese have actually been adopting a lot of renewable energy sources - up from 10% of electricity to around 30% over a decade. And they also making much more efficient use of the coal they are burning.

Jonathan Leake, writing in the Sunday Times today, described reports of reductions in carbon emissions from China as "unlikely ... in such a fast growing economy."

He highlighted a US initiative to launch a satellite to monitor carbon emissions. 'We're goin' to smoke you (Chinese) out!' is one interpretation. So is the Chinese Government really fiddling the books about carbon emissions?

Of course we're all thoroughly (self) trained to repeat the mantra about the Chinese are building a coal fired power station every day or two so what possible difference can my solar panel make etc ... (although no doubt that unmentionable supermarket chain's motif about 'every little helps' comes into mind).

So talk of 5% (or any) cuts in Chinese carbon emissions are instantly filed in the rubbish tray by many westerners. 'They are obviously cooking the books, what can you expect of a communist government' is, I am sure the general trend among the richer sections of chattering Sunday Times classes who are reeling from relief from the worry of a potential Miliband Government taxing their mansions,

A wide spread of statistics indicate the cuts are genuine

Except that I have a sneaking feeling that reports of cuts in carbon emissions are not to be discounted. Indeed I will be rather surprised if the Chinese are making it up. Sorry Jonathan.

There are various reasons why I believe the Chinese statistics. First, if you look at the data for changes in production of various sorts, it would require some highly integrated coordination to get a bunch of statisticians to weave together such a convincing story of how contextual figures for cement production, industrial production of various sorts and energy production to tally.

China is an authoritarian state, yes, but it's not North Korea. Somebody somewhere is likely to leak some details of what is really going on, if the stats books are really being cooked to that degree. There are an awful lot of very intelligent people in China. Really.

But perhaps an even bigger reason why it would be wrong to place to much emphasis on sceptical western opinion is are the clues from the wider energy, social, economic and political context. Westerners received wisdom of what is happening in China is basically flawed in some crucial senses.

Busting the China myths

One myth is that China is still in the midst of a transformation from a rurally based population to an urbanised population requiring vast investments in buildings and infrastructure that will carry on until the cows come home in their newly built mass sheds.

In fact, for the large bulk of the population, this has already happened. Chinese people mainly live in towns and cities already. There has been a big building boom in recent years, but that may be less connected to people coming in from the fields than in pure property speculation funded by a lot of governmental graft.

In fact the government led by President Xi Jinping has been busy cutting down on government graft and seems to be well aware of the distorting impact of an economy heavily influenced by corruption - and incidentally under great pressure to do something about the appalling levels of air pollution suffered in these urban centres in China.

And there is a lot of contextual evidence that the corruption crackdown is real, for example the cries of pain from the gambling ventures in Macao. So there are likely to be big reductions in speculative building constructions. This certainly connects with official statistics showing a big slowdown in cement production, and therefore in outputs of carbon emissions.

Sure a lot of coal fired power stations being built, but there are now far too many of them compared with electricity demand, which has barely increased in recent times. This has had the collateral effect of allowing production to be focussed on the newer, more efficient power stations.

Coal prices have plunged on the world markets in recent times, Australian and other coal traders are reacting with horror at import curbs on coal with high ash content, and of course, the world economy has been slow to rebound, influenced no doubt by 'sluggish' Chinese economic growth.

A clue: now 30% of China's electricity is renewable

Now 'sluggish' is definitely a relative term when is comes to economic growth rates. A Chinese economic growth rate hovering, as it has been in the last 12 months, just above 7%, would hardly be regarded as sluggish in the UK, but in China it is a big decline from the 10% or more annual growth that they have been chalking up.

But that has big implications in that this will send carbon emissions in (relatively) downwards direction. Now, the western press believes the official statistics showing a relative decline in Chinese economic growth, but doesn't believe their stats on carbon emissions. Odd.

Added to which the Chinese have actually been adopting a lot of renewable energy sources - up from 10% of electricity to around 30% over a decade. And they also making much more efficient use of the coal they are burning. Yes, that's energy efficiency, also helped by a shift to production of less energy intensive goods and services.

And by the way, while the Chinese have been building a few nuclear power plant, this makes little difference compared to the growth in renewable energy. Wind power alone is now outstripping nuclear power in electricity production.

Putting this all in perspective, Chinese per capita emissions are roughly on par with average EU per capita emissions, and about half those of per capita US emissions. It is positive news that the Chinese are most unlikely now to catch up the Americans.

A big question is, how fast is the USA curbing down its emissions? And by the way Uncle Sam, why are you virtually banning imports of solar power from China and helping to curb the fall in world solar PV prices?

 


 

Dr David Toke is Reader in Energy Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations in the University of Aberdeen.

David's latest book, Ecological Modernisation and Renewable Energy, was published in March 2011 by Palgrave.

This article was originally published on David Toke's blog page.

 

 

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