Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Springtime for China's Coal Industry: Is China Too Big to Swerve Enough to Avoid the Climatic Iceberg Ahead?

Even as Chinese government officials “called on the United States to recognize established science and to work with other countries to reduce dependence on dirty fuels like coal and oil,” China was “scrambling to mine and burn more coal.”[1] Notably, short-terms concerns were dominant. “A lack of stockpiles and worries about electricity blackouts” were “spurring Chinese officials to reverse curbs that [had] once helped reduce coal production.”[2] By December, 2016, coal mines were reopening, and with them coal miners were returning to work. The renewed activity would of course make it more difficult for China and the world to meet CO2 emissions targets, “as Chinese coal is the world’s largest single source of carbon emissions from human activities.”[3] In fact, China’s use of coal results in more emissions “than all the oil, coal, and gas consumed in the United States.”[4] The implications for being able to contain the global rise in temperature within 2 degrees C are not bright from this real-life scenario. It is important, therefore, to grasp the underlying dynamics behind China’s plight.
Even as 2014 had brought “the autumn of coal,” and 2015 and early 2016 instantiated the winter, the new spring later in 2016 came during what would be the hottest year for the planet since record-keeping began. The cyclical pattern evinced here does not fit with the maximizing nature of global warming.
The Chinese government was not adjusting fast enough, given the climatic toll even by the closing months of 2016. The sheer scale involved is likely the main culprit—China’s population being over a billion. Despite ambitious hydroelectric-dam projects and “the world’s largest program to install solar panels and build wind turbines,” coal still produced almost three-quarters of the country’s electricity.[5] Even with conservation measures on the use of electricity—which, by the way, are practically non-existent in sunbelt republics like Florida and Arizona—a billion people must necessarily consume a lot of energy cumulatively. Even with the one-child policy, the sheer size of China’s population was something the government could not ignore.
The dynamic I have in mind is that of the Titanic, the largest ship of its day (1912) and yet with a rudder that was too small, given the size of the ship, to turn it sufficiently in time to avoid the upcoming iceberg. By analogy, a climatic “iceberg” was approaching Earth so fast and was so close even by the end of 2016 that the governments of large, empire-scale, countries like China and India would need larger rudders in order to steer close enough to alternative energy sources to have even a chance of avoiding a collision with full-blown climate change. The culprit, in other words, lies not only in the proclivity of human nature to privilege instant gratification backed up by short-term politics and thinking; our ships of state are outmoded, given how large we’ve allowed our species to become. The problem is thus not in China’s rough transition from central-planning to a government-regulated free market.

[1] Keith Bradsher, “Despite Climate Vow, China Scrambles for Coal,” The New York Times, November 30, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.