Neither China’s President Xi Jinping nor India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi could find time to attend the UN Climate Summit in New York on September 23. US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were speakers, as was UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Russian President Vladimir Putin stayed put in Moscow.
But irrespective of who showed up or what pledges were made, any discussion of how to cope with the world’s greenhouse gas emissions must start with three fundamental facts: energy demand is growing fastest in heavily populated Asia, coal is still the dominant energy source, and China accounts for more than a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion.
Environmentally, fixing China fixes the world, because China is by far the world’s biggest energy consumer and it now emits more CO2 per capita than Europe. China is ramping up hydro, solar, wind, gas and nuclear power, but is also continuing to build coal-fired power stations, and relies on coal for 65 per cent of its electricity needs. China’s CO2 emissions continued to rise last year, reaching 9.52 billion tons, or 27.1 per cent of the global total of 35.1 billion tons, according to BP’s 2014 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Add in the United States and India, and almost half of the world’s total CO2 emissions last year came from just these three nations. Three other big emitters – Russia, Japan and Germany – were responsible for another 11 per cent.
Emissions are rising, not declining, because of increased energy demand and coal’s role in meeting that demand. Even with the rise of natural gas, a modest comeback for nuclear power, and falling costs for renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydro, coal’s abundance, reliability and low initial cost ensure it will be used for decades to generate power. Even in 2035, the International Energy Agency expects that coal will be the fuel source for a third of all electricity.
Thus, the worthy global goal of “decarbonizing” the power sector will require a massive investment, both in the renewables sector and in upgrading coal-fired power stations to the ultra-supercritical level. These power plants have efficiency ratings of 45 per cent or more and use “clean coal” technology such as pre-washing, de-watering, steam-cleaning of flue gases and carbon capture and storage. In concert with more efficient energy distribution systems and the closing and/or retrofitting of low-efficiency power stations, clean coal will be critical to combating the rise in CO2 emissions. Switching to gas, building more nuclear power plants, and investing in subsidized renewable energy will not be enough, however much the “green economy” proponents might wish it were so.
China knows it has an environmental problem of mammoth proportions, covering its air, water and soil quality. It is making some progress, but not quickly enough. Earlier in September, for example, China announced that it would ban the import of high-ash and high-sulfur “dirty” coal beginning in 2015. There are similar restrictions on domestic coal. Essentially, China is trying to reduce the amount of poor quality coal used in power plants and old-style smaller boilers and heaters. It is also retrofitting older coal-fired power plants with ultra-low emissions technology to bring them up to the level of its latest power stations. It knows it must also reduce, restore and recycle the water it uses for industry, particularly in coal-fired power plants.
In the US, the federal government and a private energy consortium that includes Japan’s JX Group, came together at a Texas coal-fired power station on September 5 to mark the start of the $1 billion Petra Nova project, destined to be the world’s largest post-combustion carbon-capture facility by 2016. If the Petra Nova project works well, we can expect to see more such projects in the US and elsewhere. Germany and Japan are also pursuing clean coal technology.
The North American shale revolution has enabled natural gas to surpass coal as the dominant energy source,, but the US still remains the world’s second largest producer and consumer of coal behind China. Its CO2 emissions from energy use rose 3 per cent in 2013 to 5.93 billion tons, or 16.9 per cent of the world total.
In India, where 55 per cent of its primary energy comes from coal, CO2 emissions rose 4.4 per cent to reach 1.93 billion tons, or 5.5 per cent of the global total. There are no easy answers for India’s power sector, given its need for imported coal, its lack of a smart grid and ongoing losses from poor infrastructure. Nuclear power is part of India’s energy mix, but faces environmental opposition and long lead times.
Between 2011 and 2035, India possibly will add 225 GW of coal-fired power, according to an International Energy Agency study. For China, the figure is likely to be almost 500 GW, and for the US 160 GW. As a consequence of this and energy growth in other populous economies such as Indonesia, global CO2 emissions will continue to rise, from 35 billion tons in 2013 to 42 billion tons in 2035. More than 50 per cent of those emissions are locked in because of fossil fuel-fired power stations already built or under construction.
China has committed to cut its carbon dioxide intensity in 2020 by 45 per cent from its levels of 2005. Under its 12th five-year plan for the period 2011-15, it has put a lot of emphasis on clean energy, and we can expect to see more of the same in the 13th plan covering 2016-20. How China deals with its energy needs, its pressing environmental issues and a slower pace of economic growth will be a focus for the rest of this decade. Technological solutions exist for a low-carbon economy, but who will pay?