China & India:
From coal to collapse
by Mike Roddy
Chinese & Indian coal-fired power: the graveyard of the Earth's climate?
The trend that imperils the Biosphere but "dares not speak its name"
Of all of the troubling developments concerning global warming in the last few years, the accelerating emissions from China and India may be the most difficult to address. Consider:
* China's Ministry of industry and information technology reported that coal-fired electricity and oil sales each climbed 24 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to 2009.
* Some 96% of global emissions growth from 2006 to 2030 is expected to come from non OECD countries, mostly China and India. Wealthy countries’ emissions are projected as stable or rising slightly.
* Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environment Minister, told Hillary Clinton in 2009 that India would never take on legally binding commitments to cut down on emissions.
* India has 200 GW of coal plants planned in the next decade, the largest absolute growth in the world.
* China, while talking about emissions goals, refuses both monitoring and enforcement.
The furious projected pace of coal plant construction in Asia would lock in major emissions for decades to come. Given the accelerating pace of climate related impacts, project cancellations and retrofitting of existing plants will become likely. For practical and environmental reasons, it is much better to address this likely future now.
Meanwhile, all of the news about current effects of global warming is bad. The Arctic is melting decades ahead of schedule. Methane is shooting out of the Arctic Ocean. Global temperatures are marching upward at an accelerating pace, and global CO2 concentration was recently measured at 392 ppm.
It is clear that efforts to reduce emissions enough to make a habitable climate likely post-2050 are meaningless unless emissions growth in Asia is slowed, and quickly. No Western country has addressed this political issue in any meaningful way.
The Right in the United States appears to believe that China’s coal plant construction policies are correct, and that this is what America should also be doing, combined with natural gas and nuclear power. Some people on the other end of the political spectrum appear to believe that countries such as China and India should not restrict CO2 emissions, due to their low historical emissions contributions and their pressing need to “lift themselves our of poverty”. This of course beggars the issues of blocking technical advances, environmental health destruction caused by mining and burning coal, and power production infrastructure remaining wedded to a sunset industry - the same problems that coal has in the US. Giving developing countries a pass also trivializes the enormous dangers that the world could face if the Earth warms at the pace predicted by emissions increases on this scale.
Most climate scientists believe that the world has to stop burning coal for electricity if we are going to slow runaway global warming, and not just continue to talk about it. This is not open to discussion in India or China, which continue major long term construction programs for coal fired electricity.
Steve Roddy, professor of Asian Studies at the University of San Francisco, comments:
Think of the Chinese coal industry the same way you would about Massey Energy, an interest group that has strong backing in the US political establishment. There are other factors at play, too - coal is mined in the more remote interior regions, where jobs are scarcer. The main coal region is important to the CCP genealogy, since it’s near the cradle of the communist movement of the 30’s and 40’s. It’s not a very efficient industry, but it employs a lot of people, and jobs are a sensitive issue right now. Countering this are NGO’s in China similar to our own, as well as the disastrous recent weather- drought in northern China, and flooding and typhoons in the south.
Fundamentally, though, the Chinese attitude was most on display when they sent a low level diplomat to the session that Obama chaired in Copenhagen. With the US in particular so niggardly in its concessions to the developing world, why should the Chinese make sacrifices? There is also the matter of the West’s responsibility for over 75% of the excess CO2 currently in the atmosphere. The issue of justice is real to them. This means that the West, particularly the United States, should lead in reducing emissions.
China can actually move much faster than the US if circumstances so indicate. In 2000, the Chinese central government completed a logging ban in 18 provinces, something almost unprecedented in Asia. Flooding on the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers from deforestation had been inundating towns and damaging agriculture. When similar events occur in the US, Congress does not dare to stand up to the logging and homebuilding industries, but the authoritarian government in China can rapidly reverse course in an emergency climate situation.
World Energy-related CO2 Emissions (billion metric tonnes)
My own experience is in India, where I worked in the late 1990’s as a social housing consultant to industry sectors and regional government agencies. We were negotiating a contract to build 50,000 houses in the Province of Delhi, when the price of onions suddenly went from 8 rupees a kilo to 50 rupees a kilo. This event, devastating for the urban poor, resulted in the calling of a special election. Our ally, Prime Minister Singh of the BJP Party in Delhi, was ousted, and Congress Party returned to power.
The lesson is that resources are too scarce in India to allow people to choose more costly alternatives for reasons related to future events, such as a warming climate. Effects of this thinking may well be catastrophic, since the monsoon and Himalayan glaciers are projected to change for the worse.
There is also the simple matter of heat: I was in Delhi in 1998 during their summer season, when temperatures reached 45C, or 113F, with high humidity. This was the hottest climate I have ever experienced, and Indians slept on sidewalks and rooftops at night to keep from being overwhelmed by houses that had turned into ovens. In May of 2010 northern India experienced historically high temperatures in the 50C range, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Average temperatures a few degrees higher could make much of India uninhabitable, with few emigration routes available and starvation likely.
There are five potentially productive action alternatives:
1. The US must lead, and not merely for reasons of justice based on historical emissions. We remain one of the highest per capita emitters on earth, in spite of access to quality technology and adequate funding. If we wait for China and India to make serious changes before we do anything- and the current climate bill before the Senate can only be called a baby first step- the world will remain on a path to potentially devastating effects for our descendants.
2. The leaders of China and India, while very concerned about global warming, do not appear to fully grasp the extent of the dangers that they face, or they wouldn’t be signing 20 year multibillion dollar coal importing contracts with Australia. Future climate perturbations will be far greater in Asia, where population pressures on scarce resources exacerbate microclimate and hydrologic alterations. We need to send a delegation of our best climate scientists, including people such as James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, and Gavin Schmidt, on diplomatic missions, not merely scientific ones, in order to communicate the gravity of the situation. Key to this effort will be the presence of climate scientists who can document that both China and India are jeopardizing their food security by burning coal. Until recently, it was thought that more CO2 would increase crop yields: climate deniers like to cite an outdated study about increased rice production in China due to warmer weather and more CO2. Most scientists now believe the opposite, as evidenced by extreme flooding and drought in China, so agricultural climate specialists should be key members of this delegation. The scientists should be prepared to express the probabilities of global environmental collapse as a result of climate change. Recent data projects this scenario becoming more likely as emissions increases and feedbacks (such as loss of Arctic albedo) continue to exceed expectations.
3. Once the US embarks on a path of serious action- including steps that are more substantive than what we have done or even planned so far- make it clear to China and India and countries on similar paths that their planned actions in increasing GHG production are endangering all of us. If they remain intransigent in these plans, there will be economic consequences, to include steep tariffs based on products’ carbon intensity. This policy would apply to all highly carbon intensive exporters, including Canada and Russia, with no exemptions based on political considerations. Deforestation would be addressed by instituting steep tariffs against products that come from forest liquidation, a major problem in North America. Policy papers should be prepared for all manufacturing and trade that endangers global climate, and preliminary agreements negotiated among the G20 countries.
4. Remove or weaken patent or licensing restrictions for energy breakthroughs that are potentially transformative. This could include ultralight CSP or wind turbines, cheap thin film solar modules, etc. This would in effect be a wealth transfer, which China and India have requested. Develop plans to retrofit coal plant turbines and boilers for CSP, and to scrap or recycle remaining components of coal plants with accelerated retirement schedules. This would include coal and other fossil fuel plants in the US.
5. Instruct the World Bank, IMF, and IFC to stop funding huge CO2 sources such as the recent $3.75 billion coal plant in South Africa and the equally large Tata Ultra Mega coal plant in India. Impose a 2% interest surcharge on private sector coal plant funding, and set the money aside to support clean energy projects.
It’s not enough to continue to talk about “bridge fuels” such as natural gas, or to plan for renewables at an indefinite date in the future. Most countries are guilty of this thinking, since it’s easy to make vague plans for the future. It’s a pitch that’s been around for decades, and has the effect of delaying major investment and regulatory decisions. The science indicates very clearly that the time for action is now.