Decline in China coal demand to continue, says Beijing expert

Emissions could peak earlier than government target of 2030 as tide starts to turn against coal, world’s dirtiest form of energy

Pic: Sporkmaster/flickr

Pic: Sporkmaster/flickr

By Ed King

China’s addiction to coal is coming to an end, with new data from the government indicating demand for the black stuff fell 2.9% in 2014. 

The country still heavily relies on coal, which accounted for 66% of energy consumption last year.

But according to Jiang Kejun, a senior scientist at the Energy Research Institute, Beijing – a government body – this number will fall in the coming decade.

“The trend will continue, the growth or energy demand will be continually slow as most energy intensive products reach their manufacture peak,” he told RTCC in an email.

“The energy intensive products sector occupied nearly 70% of new increases in energy demand in the last 10 years.

“Coal consumption has decreased, and based on our quick calculation, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel also decreased.”

It’s as yet unclear by how much China’s emissions fell in 2014. Last week Glen Peters from the Oslo-based CICERO research group said it could be as much as 0.7%.

Report: Zhang Yong favourite to replace Xie as climate envoy 

It’s also not certain that the country’s demand for coal has peaked.

2014 could be an anomaly, and as Gerard Wynn pointed out in an analysis for RTCC last month, previous dips in the country’s use of carbon intensive fuels were recorded in 1992, 1997 and 2007.

But coal growth has slowed over the past two years, while the economy has continued to grow.

Jiang’s opinion is significant, considering the ERI’s holds an influential position within the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main economic body which also sets its climate strategy.

Previously he has said China’s emissions need to peak before 2025 of the world is to avoid warming of above 2C, beyond which droughts, flooding and sea level rise could intensify.

That’s a far more ambitious goal than the one on the table from the government in Beijing, which agreed with the US last year it would aim for a peak by 2030.

But it’s one he has long argued is possible – most recently in a 2013 paper in the journal Climate Policy suggesting a peak next decade was on the cards if coal demand dropped between 2015-2017.

This would require energy intensive industries to start cutting the carbon intensity of their products, and would also need huge investments in wind, solar, gas and nuclear.

These blocks seem to be falling into place.

According to government data for 2014, installed wind capacity grew by 25.6% and solar by 67%, while the energy consumption per tonne of copper, steel and cement fell.

The 2015 National People’s Congress (NPC) which starts this week, is likely to go some way to determining whether this will continue, with talks scheduled on the country’s 13th Five Year Plan (FYP), which runs from 2016-2020.

The importance of talks the country’s filthy air were highlighted by the release of a film called ‘Under the Dome’ on the internet this weekend.

Filmed and presented by journalist Chai Jing, it tells of her concerns over city smog levels around the country, and it has been viewed over 100 million times and mentioned 280 million on Chinese social media.

Beijing is expected to unveil the new FYP plan after the NPC, which will be the first for Chen Jining in his new role as environment minister, and is also likely to see the appointment of a new chief climate envoy to the UN.

Current goals include cutting energy intensity 16% below 2010 levels by 2015 and increasing the share of renewables in its energy mix to 15% by 2020.

Greenpeace China has already called for these to be amended in light of falling coal demand.

The impacts could be felt around the world, given China is a huge importer of coal from overseas, notably from mines based in Australia and Indonesia.

According to the Carbon Tracker Institute, a UK group focused on assessing the financial risks associated with fossil fuels, the country’s coal imports fell 10.9% in 2014.

It says Australia is already feeling the effects, with coal export prices down 25% in the last 12 months.

“Chinese thermal coal peaking is like changing the direction on an escalator. It will be a shock for those who assumed the direction would always be up,” said James Leaton from the CTI.

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