In China, Cap on Coal Output May Help Slow Climate Change

Partly to slow the growth of its carbon emissions and reduce the chances of catastrophic climate change, China is considering implementation of a ceiling on national coal production by the year 2015. Breaking China’s dependence on coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuel energy sources, is going to be a monumental challenge that will take many years. But this latest announcement is another encouraging sign that the world’s largest annual producer of carbon emissions may be getting serious about minimizing its contribution to climate change.

Details of what the coal production cap would look like have yet to emerge. Presumably however, the cap would help curb expansion of coal mining in China. Today China mines more coal than any other country in the world, despite having only about half as large of coal reserves as the United States. Accidents in the mining industry have been rampant, causing some of China’s mines to close due to safety concerns. China also imports significant amounts of coal from Australia and other countries, but the fact remains this rapidly developing nation simply cannot continue its growing rate of coal consumption without running into serious supply problems.

Add to this the fact that China’s leaders are becoming increasingly aware of their country’s large carbon footprint and the threats posed by climate change, and the need to cap coal use becomes quickly apparent. Last year China vowed to reduce the intensity of its emissions, or the amount of carbon emissions generated per unit of energy used, by 40-45% by the year 2020. Since coal is the most carbon intensive of all traditional fuels, achieving this goal will almost certainly mean reducing the country’s dependence on coal as an energy source. Chinese officials say they hope by 2015 coal will supply 65% of China’s energy needs. Currently China relies on coal to meet 70% of its overall energy demand, and 80% of its electricity-generating power plants.

In order to meet its goals for reduced consumption of coal, China will have to increase its already substantial investments in renewable energy sources. Equally important, the country must begin using energy more efficiently: China already has plans to reduce per-unit energy consumption through initiatives that include building more efficient power plants, designing buildings to retain heat better, and switching to energy efficient light bulbs.

From the standpoint of reducing causes of climate change, China’s runaway economic growth and skyrocketing carbon emissions during the last several years have been truly alarming. Yet there are signs at least some Chinese decision-makers recognize the problem, and that progress is being made. China’s coal boom is slowing, albeit gradually. The oft-cited statistic that China builds a new coal-fired power plant every week is no longer accurate. With Chinese policies like a cap on coal output and serious efforts from industrialized countries to reduce their own carbon emissions more quickly than is realistic for China, it might turn out to be possible to avert the worst effects of climate change after all.

Photo credit: Pedronet on Flickr