A Look Behind the Headlines on China’s Coal Trends

Courtesy of The New York Times. By ANDREW C. REVKIN

Armond Cohen at Clean Air Task Force has provided helpful context in the face of recent headlines and a Greenpeace analysisfocused on what appears to be the first drop in Chinese coal use in a century.

Here’s the brunt of his post:

In late 2014, China pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030, and achieve 20 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil energy sources. And China continues to lead the world in annual additions of wind and solar power. While these developments are to be celebrated, there remains a sobering reality: they still leave a lot of headroom for China to expand its coal power plant capacity between now and 2030, even though its coal fleet is already more than twice the size of the US coal fleet.

Indeed, China’s march towards coal continued in 2014 as shown by data from the latest report from China’s National Energy Administration….

[D]espite additions of substantial wind, solar, and nuclear capacity, when properly adjusted for capacity factor (the amount of annual energy produced per unit of capacity) to reflect production capability, the amount of new coal energy added to the China grid last year exceeded new solar energy by 17 times, new wind energy by more than 4 times, and even new hydro by more than 3 times. And, despite having more than 30 new nuclear reactors under construction, China’s new nuclear capability was still a fraction of new coal energy.

[At first blush, this data seems to contradict recentreports that total China coal use fell in 2014 for the first time by about 2.5 percent. However, the two trends are not inconsistent. Half of China coal use is outside of the power sector, especially in heavy industry, which has reduced its coal use as exports fell in 2014 and government policies to remove subsidies from heavy industry took hold. Second, overall demand growth in the power sector reached a decade low but is expected to resume. Finally, 2014 was an exceptional hydro output year for China. The short-term blip does not undermine the general trend of continued upward trend in coal deployment in China’s power sector, which represents a growing share of China’s energy use].

Unfortunately for climate, these China 2014 coal additions – which in one year alone were double the size of the United Kingdom’s entire legacy coal fleet – will be around and cranking away for many decades, along with the rest of China’s coal fleet, most of which is less than 15 years old. Indeed, these plants can continue to pump CO2 out well into the second half of this century even with China’s pledged 2030 CO2 peak. And once in the atmosphere, those CO2 emissions will be warming the planet for many centuries to come.

To Cohen, the persistent China coal push points to the importance of intensifying work on cutting the costs of systems for capturing smokestack carbon dioxide and sequestering it underground. His headline says as much: “No China coal peak in sight; carbon capture will be necessary to tame emissions in this century”:

The implications are clear for climate. In addition to rapidly increasing China’s adoption of non-fossil power sources such as renewables and nuclear, to mitigate long-lived CO2 emissions, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) must be applied to both new and existing China plants, both coal and gas. Full commercial scale projects in Canada and the US demonstrate that CCS is not a science project but is here today and works. But, as with all low carbon energy sources, we need to bring CCS costs down over time to accelerate deployment. That will require a steady commitment to early demonstration, commercialization and cost reductions through scaled deployment of CCS, as the world did for renewable energy. As several recent international reports suggest, without such an effort, we have little chance of successfully managing climate change in this century, or beyond.

The basic coal math in his piece is a sobering reminder that the fossil age is not ending any time soon. Unfortunately, I don’t share Cohen’s optimism about prospects for the deployment of such systems at a scale the climate would notice, mainly because there’s no incentive for China to pay the additional cost, no sign (unless you can identify one?) that developed countries will be willing to cover the difference and little evidence that the world is serious about a much more ambitious push on large-scale demonstration of integrated systems for capturing and storing CO2.

On carbon capture at scale, I still haven’t seen much to shift me from the view I held in 2010, when I wrote this about carbon capture and storage:

[I]t remains an absolute pipe dream if considered at anywhere near the scale that would be required to impress the global atmosphere in a world where coal use is expected to surge for decades.

The issue isn’t technology or geology (finding safe storage sites for huge volumes) nearly so much as cost. And remember, this isn’t about the affordability of the technology in the United States or Europe. It’s about the cost of deployment at large scale in the coal-boom countries, China and India.

I still think this 2010 paper by Howard J. Herzog at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology very nicely lays out what to look for to gauge if countries are serious about this issue: “Scaling up carbon dioxide capture and storage: From megatons to gigatons.”

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