China Invests in Coal on the Eve of Paris Climate Summit

By Isla Lamont
Staff Writer

The Chinese government has issued 155 permits for the construction of new coal power plants, despite China’s pledge to decrease carbon emissions by 2030.

Together, the United States and China contribute more than 40 percent of world carbon emissions, a major component of the greenhouse effect that causes global warming. According to the Guardian, the two countries “are critical to efforts to reach a deal to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

The aforementioned deal will hopefully take place at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. U.N. delegates will meet to find a compromise on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that obligates state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

President Barack Obama is expected to lobby for more extreme global cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, despite being continuously thwarted by a Republican Congress in his campaign for improved environment sustainability.

Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s leading climate official, declared in early November that China was leading the world in the fight against climate change. “The United States is actually playing catch up to China,” Figueres said, adding that “China has taken an undisputed leadership.”

Initial figures show that in 2014, China’s coal output declined for the first time in 15 years and that it was showing record increases in power generation through hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear energy, according to the Irish Times.

Part of the confusion as to where China stands with its pollution rates is the reliability of environmental statistics from the region. According to Greenpeace, some outside reports suggest that China’s actual rate of coal usage may be as high as 17 percent, more than self-reported. The current estimates for coal use stand around 66 percent of the country’s energy consumption.

One speculation as to why China has begun the construction of 155 new coal power plants is because the Chinese economy is slowing. Although the projects would create new jobs and enable provinces to supply their own energy needs, it would result in heavily increased public debt for the nation in the long-run.

Additionally, a decelerating economy means less demand for coal, which makes the creation of new plants questionable. According to an article by the New York Times, the economic phenomenon of a coal industry glut is forming.

Zhang Boting, vice chairman of the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, said, “China already has more coal capacity than it will ever need. A few years down the road, we’ll see what a waste the plants are. We have seen this happen to the steel and cement industries.”

Shoichi Itoh from the Institute of Energy Economics in Japan reaffirmed this economic analysis: “I think low growth makes it more difficult to achieve their target. If [the] Chinese economy slows down, they can’t expect people to pay more for energy. So people might lose their appetite for reducing emissions.”

This “coal boom” shows that China is holding on to a centralized investment-driven growth system, disregarding the promises of government leaders to move towards an economic model based on consumer spending, as reported by the New York Times.

Isla LaMont

Isla LaMont is a junior Economics and Management major and Art History minor. She is best known for being unable to pronounce the word "bagel" due to her Minnesotan accent. Contact Isla at rachel.lamont@student.shu.edu.

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