3bl logo
Subscribe

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Has China Reached Peak Coal?

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
Leadership & Transparency
hero

Last fall, China made a historic climate agreement with the U.S., committing to reach peak carbon by 2030 and peak coal by 2020. And now it appears that the world’s top carbon emitter is starting to make good on its promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions and scale back on its reliance on dirty sources of energy.

According to energy data released by the Chinese government last week, the country’s consumption of coal fell by 2.9 percent in 2014 – the first dip in 14 years, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports. This drop in coal consumption has also led to the first decline in China’s carbon emissions this century – 0.70 percent – estimates Glen Peters, senior research fellow at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Norway.

While the reductions in coal consumption and carbon emissions are modest, they are significant. Slower growth in China’s industrial sector was partly responsible for the decrease in demand for coal, but the government’s motivation to finally take action on pollution and carbon emissions also played a role, the Telegraph reports. The newly-released energy statistics may even point to China reaching peak coal now – a few years earlier than it pledged to – and shifting toward an energy mix with more natural gas and renewables, the publication went to say.

In a similar vein, Melanie Hart, director for China policy at the Center for American Progress, told Think Progress that last year’s decline in coal use indicates that the country is on track to reach peak coal use by 2020, if not earlier. Most emissions models suggest that China’s carbon emissions will peak approximately after coal does, Hart said.

Indeed, when Chinese president Xi Jinping announced his commitment in November, he said, “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” This language left the door open for Chinese leaders to cut emissions more aggressively if the economics allowed, Hart said, and the new energy data points to this possibility, since slashing coal use is key to reducing China’s carbon footprint.

China has been making great strides towards cutting its pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, according to the NRDC. In 2013, the country adopted an air pollution control action plan that concentrates on reducing coal consumption in the three most polluted regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. While some cities are beginning to enjoy better air quality, there is still much room for improvement: The air quality in 66 of China’s 74 major cities failed to meet basic standards last year. The NRDC predicts that pressure will continue to mount on the Chinese government to address its troubling air pollution problem – which means finding alternatives to coal.

China also set a goal to source 15 percent of its energy from renewables by 2015 -- a goal it's well on its way to meeting, the NRDC reported. China not only led the world in renewable energy investment in 2014 – with a record $89.5 billion in funding – but the country also led the world in solar and wind capacity installed last year – 10.6 gigawatts and 96 gigawatts, respectively. Ironically enough, wind is now the second-largest source of electricity in Shanxi Province, the longtime center of China’s coal industry – and one of the country’s the most polluted areas.

China has also made energy efficiency a top priority, the NRDC said, shutting down highly-polluting, inefficient factories including 570 million metric tons of cement and 75 million metric tons of steel capacity in the last four years.

China’s new energy statistics and its recent work to address pollution and climate change runs counter to Republican criticism of the strength of China’s climate commitments and their justification of allowing the U.S. to drag its feet on climate action, too. The world will be waiting to see if China adopts more aggressive goals or announces further progress at the next United Nations’ climate conference in Paris this summer.

Image credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kos-Read

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru headshotAlexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

Read more stories by Alexis Petru

More stories from Leadership & Transparency