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China and Coal: The Reality Distortion Field is as Strong as Ever

In a post earlier this year I compared the endless claims around renewable energy to the famous “reality distortion field” (RDF) that was first employed by the Talosians in the original series of Star Trek, but was later linked with the management style of Steve Jobs. The RDF was said to be Steve Jobs’ ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence.

It would appear that after the announcement by the USA and China on their emissions agreement, a new reality distortion field is appearing around the subject of Chinese coal use.

It is very clear from all the reports coming from China that there is real concern about the use of coal and its link with the air quality in many major cities. It is also clear that the Chinese government is now starting to address this issue through the management of coal use, including the closure of older more polluting stations, the use of natural gas, the rapid build of nuclear and renewable energy capacity and so on. But coal use is continuing to increase, albeit more slowly than in recent years. While coal use in parts of the country may even decrease in the near term, as rapid development spreads to all corners of China over the next decade energy demand will continue to grow and total coal use will probably follow.

In the excitement around recent announcements, many organisations are now pinning their hopes on Chinese coal use peaking much earlier than the announced 2030 timeframe for a peak in overall emissions. As a result, when a revised energy strategy was announced in China recently, it was widely reported under the effects of the new distortion field.

According to two Chinese news reports that I could find (Xinhuanet and Shanghai Daily), the following is what was apparently announced;

The State Council promised more efficient, self-sufficient, green and innovative energy production and consumption in the Energy Development Strategy Action Plan (2014-2020). It included a cap set on annual primary energy consumption set at 4.8 billion tonnes of the standard coal equivalent until 2020. Annual coal consumption will be held below 4.2 billion tonnes until 2020, 16.3 percent more than the 3.6 billion tonnes burned last year, according to the National Coal Association.

My interpretation of this is that China has outlined its energy consumption goals for the period 2014 to 2020, but said nothing about the post 2020 period. However, this was reported very differently by others who decided to interpret the announcement as a cap on coal use by 2020. For example, the UNFCCC press release said;

The Chinese State Council also announced a new energy strategy action plan that includes ambitious measures to cap national coal consumption as early as 2020 at 4.2 billion tons, and reduce coal’s share of China’s primary energy mix to less than 62 percent by that same year.

The Climate Reality Project even had a small poster made to announce their interpretation of the plan;

China coal

Chinese coal use might peak in the medium term and emissions from coal will certainly have to peak before 2030 because of their announced INDC (national contribution) in-tandem with the announcement by the USA. But even then coal use may continue to grow if carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be successfully deployed at scale.

For me, the big announcement of the week is the proposed creation of a national carbon market to follow the regional trials now underway. Shanghai Daily reported the following;

China will open a nationwide carbon market in 2016 to help the government reduce emissions by 2030, the National Development and Reform Commission yesterday said in Beijing. Su Wei, an official at the climate change department under the NDRC, said he expected the market to be mature by 2020.

A robust and mature carbon market active throughout the 2020s could bring emissions from coal to a rapid standstill and even see them fall through fuel switching to natural gas and the deployment of CCS. Then it will be time to put up a poster.

Content Discussion

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on December 4, 2014

Thanks for the reality check. Always usefull.

AFAIK, China has been fitting – and will continue to fit – their existing coal power stations (the worst of which cause two orders of magnitude more air polution/kWh than modern coal plants in the West) with at least basic but increasingly advanced polution reduction measures (scrubbers and filters). New stations will have these as standard. This highlights the categorical difference between air pollution from coal power generation on the one hand, and co2 emissions from coal power generation on the other.

The Chinese clearly recognise and want to reduce the horrendous air pollution due to unmitigated coal burning, but this does not automatically mean that they will reign in coal usage per se. They can achieve large air pollution reductions simply by applying rather affordable and effective air polution reduction measures to existing plants. So to assume (as some seem to want to do) that the air pollution caused by coal burning in China will of itself induce China to move increasingly away from coal and thus reduce co2 emissions from coal, is not necessarily accurate.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 4, 2014


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 4, 2014

David, Americans generate twice as much carbon per capita as the Chinese.

The most distorted reality distortion field can be found in our mirrors.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on December 4, 2014

I see this as a simple apples-to-oranges error. The US-China climate deal sets out goals for 2030; but that is not formally related to the Chinese energy plan, which sets out goals to 2020. And yes, while there is a lot of wiggle-room here for what happens in the 2020-2030 period, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that China made the deal with the intent to cheat, or to be deceptive in what they’re planning.

The fact is that the Chinese recognize the air pollution problems in their own cities better than anyone, and they recognize that it is serious and needs to be solved, and further, they recognize that they can kill two birds with one stone by hooking that necessary change with a climate deal. They’re moving in the right direction from a policy standpoint, and that deserves praise, even if we’re not entirely sure at this point where that cap will end up in 2030.