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The "Historic" US-China Climate Change Deal Confirms that We are Failing in the Fight Against Climate Change

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Optimism has broken out among those concerned about climate change. Secret negotiations between America and China have given us a “game changing” deal, one that gives us a “fighting chance” to limit global temperature rises to 2 °C. As an old-fashioned numbers based scientist I cannot share this optimism.

Like it or not, this deal does not appear to give us a chance to win this particular fight; instead, it confirms we have almost certainly lost it.

Let’s state the basic facts first. China has put forward a commitment that its greenhouse gas emissions will peak sometime around 2030; while America has agreed to reduce its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

China’s per-capita emissions will peak far above those in the EU

Existing US commitments are to reduce emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  As Alex Evans points out here, this new 2025 commitment does little more than extrapolate the 2020 commitment forward five years.  If this is a game changer, one must ask what isn’t. The only thing that appears to have changed is the year of the target. One gets the feeling that the Obama administration has what Clive James called the fidgets; re-naming stuff to convince people things are actually changing, when they are not.

China’s targets are also less impressive on closer inspection. The key goal is for China’s emissions to peak some time around 2030. However, China’s annual per-capita CO2 emissions now exceed 7 tonnes; a figure now above the European Union average, and higher than in Britain. In the last 5 years, China’s CO2 emissions increased by 40%. If you were optimistic, then, you would hope they will increase by no more than 40% between now and 2030.

If you were pessimistic, you would expect them to increase by much more than 40%. 70% of China’s energy consumption is in industry, compared with a figure of just over 30% in America. Only 7% of Chinese own cars, while per-capita household electricity consumption remains a quarter of that seen in Britain. China’s energy consumption will clearly keep rising in the decades to come, and the scope to increase China’s greenhouse gas emissions remains huge.

But even if you were optimistic, China appears to have committed itself to having peak per-capita greenhouse gas emissions higher than those in Germany, France, Japan, Britain and almost every major economy other than America and Canada. This is a game changer for climate change, but not exactly a hopeful one.

China’s new commitment to clean energy would only meet three years of current consumption growth

China’s new clean energy commitments has also received a typically naive reception by western greens. But the actual numbers look much less impressive in the context of the astonishing growth of China’s energy consumption.

The US-China Joint Statement’s fact sheet says the following,

“China’s target to expand total energy consumption coming from zero-emission sources to around 20 percent by 2030 is notable. It will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 – more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States. “

This, again, sounds like dressing up existing policies in new clothes. China already has targets, and they seem to just add up to the same headline figure. Approximately 180 GW of nuclear is targeted to be added between now and 2030. To the best of my knowledge, China has yet to outline wind, solar or hydro targets for 2030. But the additions between now and 2020 are as follows: hydro – 130 GW; wind – 120 GW; while solar is likely to be at least 50 GW. If you add these numbers up, it is clear that these new clean energy commitments from China are not new; they are a continuation of existing policies.

A second problem is that there is a piece of numerical sleight of hand in the “fact sheet” quoted above. China now has 800 GW of coal power plants. In capacity terms, 800-1000 GW of nuclear, wind, solar and hydro is greater; but in generation terms it is certain to be lower.

China’s coal power plants have capacity factors of around 60%. Nuclear is around 85%. However, unless China massively increases its nuclear expansion plans, nuclear will make up at most a quarter of these low-carbon capacity additions. This leaves us with hydro, wind and solar. Solar has capacity factors well below 20% in China. Wind farm capacity factors are around 23%. Hydroelectric plants average below 40%.

Average capacity factors of China’s new low-carbon capacity are therefore likely to be less than 40%. China’s new low carbon energy will therefore be roughly the same as that of all of the world’s nuclear power plants. Again, this sounds impressive; but the growth in China’s energy consumption is even more impressive.

China’s annual primary energy consumption grew by 750 million tonnes of oil equivalent in the last four years. This is the same as the total annual energy consumption of Germany, France and Britain combined. In contrast, global primary energy consumption from nuclear power plants was 563.2 million tonnes of oil equivalent last year. In other words, China’s commitment to low carbon energy between now and 2030 would meet only about three years of current growth in energy consumption.

A long plateau will likely follow any peak in China’s emissions

We must also face the reality that China’s emissions will see a long plateau, even if they peak by 2030. Around half of the 4 billion tonnes of coal consumed each year in China is burned to produce electricity. Most of the power plants producing this electricity were built after the year 2000. And coal power plants are built to last – the plants being retired in America today are around 50 years old. Given that China is still building large numbers of coal power plants, it is highly unlikely that it will be burning much less coal to produce electricity in 2050 than it is today.

Similarly, China uses half a billion tonnes of coal each year to produce steel. As Vaclav Smil has argued, steel making is likely to be dominated by coal for a long time to come. A rapid transition away from coal is simply not likely to happen in China.

And what of the supposed “message” this sends to other developing economies? Some commentators are now telling us that India and others may now follow China’s lead. Just think about that. They can follow China’s lead and ratchet up their per-capita CO2 emissions, higher than those in Germany. Again, we must ask just what kind of game changer this really is.

Where does this agreement leave us? Chris Hope of Cambridge University has estimated that it gives us at most a 1% chance of limiting global temperature increases to 2°C this century. I am not sure if I share his optimism.

Robert Wilson's picture

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Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on November 13, 2014

 

I share your pessimism. Our species seems to have an extraordinary aptitude for self deception. 

Some more observations about the deal: 

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/11/when-will-china...

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on November 13, 2014

 

On top of all that, it seems to me that if China is consuming that much more energy, then China is that much more wealthy. And if China is that much more wealthy, China is demanding that much more meat, soy, and palm oil, which results in more deforestation. That is the other source of Chinese emissions; it isn’t just the coal. 

 

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on November 14, 2014

 

Schemes to reduce temperature by reflecting light back into space fail to address ocean acidification as a result of CO2. 

If we really wanted to do something serious, we’d make it illegal to take coal out of the ground.  Burning it more efficiently would probably just result in burning even more of it.

 

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on November 14, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on November 14, 2014

 

There seems now to be three camps on this issue. The group that says that climate change is a hoax and nothing to worry about.

 

Then there is the group, usually represented here, that says that climate change is real but science and technology will, like Mighty Mouse, come to save the day.

 

Then there are a few of us who have realized that it’s already too late. CO2 was just the “trigger” that started the temperature ball rolling kicking in natural feed backs that, without a massive global project, will send the planet into a place that will not support much in the way of ‘higher life forms’, a group that includes humans.

 

 

 

 

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on November 14, 2014

China’s rising CO2 emissions are yet  another indication that renewable energy is still not cheaper than fossil fuel energy.  We should remember that next time we see yet another headline praising the falling cost of solar.

Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on November 15, 2014

This agreement will certainly have less impact than China’s insatiable appetite for oil will have on global prices thereof, or China’s incredible air pollution will have on the growth of their coal imports. We’d just better hope that COP 20 does half as much.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on November 16, 2014

Correct, there is no other way.

Ocean pH and atmospheric CO2 levels are related by basic chemistry. You can distribute megatons of caustic sodium hydroxide into the ocean to temporarily raise the pH, but it will only take a matter of weeks for ocean surface waters to absorb enough atmospheric CO2 to neutralize the NaOH with carbonic acid. You’ll end up with marginally higher levels of dissolved sodium carbonate and bicarbonate, and a pH that is still determined by the partial pressure of atmospheric CO2.

Of course, in the process you will have removed megatons of CO2 from the atmosphere. If you can keep on adding NaOH, you’ll eventually put a dent in atmospheric CO2 levels. But in no case can you evade the equilibrium linkage between partial pressure of CO2 in the atmospher and the pH of ocean surface waters.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on November 16, 2014

Reducing the average temperature of ocean surface waters by one degree C would indeed reduce the rate of thermal radiation from the water surface by about 2.7%. But that’s not the problem.

Very little of the thermal radiation emitted from the earth’s surface make it all the way through the atmosphere to space in one shot. Most thermal IR photons are absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere before they get very far. Then the molecules that have absorbed them exchange energy through collisions with other molecules in their vicinity, and the collection radiates new thermal IR photons at a rate that depends on their temperature and absorbtion / emission coefficients.

Overall, it’s a thermal diffusion process, mediated by the temperature profile of the atmosphere and the densities of molecular species that can emit and absorb in the thermal IR regions. Water vapor being the most important of those species within the lower atmosphere.

Reducing the temperature of ocean surface waters would reduce the amount of moisture in the air above the water. That allows thermal photons emitted from the surface to get farther, on average, before being absorbed. The result is an increase in the speed of thermal diffusion upward within the atmosphere, offsetting the lower surface emission rate.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on November 17, 2014

Nothing to add but agreement especially in light of the large number of people both here and elsewhere proclaiming this as good news. This ‘deal’ will only increase the rate of CO2 emissions from these two countries overall so it is perplexing to see so many would be climate advocates praising this.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on November 18, 2014

Willem

Once again, it is incredible rude of you to be copying and pasting stuff from your own articles into my columns. This is happening too often.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on November 18, 2014

Willem,

I really do not understand your attitude. I asked you not to copy and paste stuff into the comments. Copying and pasting stuff from your own articles is rude, and is little more than self promotion.

In response to this your have literally copied and pasted your first comment into your second comment. Your first comment already exists. Why do you need to fill up a second comment which is identical to the first?

So we have the following in comment one:

“Biologists estimate at least 50% of the world’s land and sea area needs to be kept in a near-unspoiled state for the other fauna and flora.

There is such a thing as the 360 degree systems approach.”

And in comment two:

“Biologists estimate at least 50% of the world’s land and sea areas need to be kept in a near-unspoiled state for the other fauna and flora; it is their healthcare system!! There is such a thing as the 360-degree systems approach to solving problems.”

Why you are writing the same thing twice? You have written this in a blog post, and then copied it into a comment below a piece of mine. I complain about you copying and pasting this stuff. How do you respond? By copying and pasting the stuff all over again. Please behave.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on November 20, 2014

Mixing the entire ocean might take many centuries. Acidification occures at the boundary where much more damage can be done to shell life near the surface.

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