Countries looking to get developing nations to cut their carbon dioxide emissions by abandoning fossil fuels have a huge challenge ahead of them: China.
The Asian giant produces and consumes nearly half the world’s coal supply, which is providing its rapidly growing economy with cheap energy. For the 13th consecutive year in a row, China’s coal consumption has increased along with its economy, which grew an average of 10 percent from 2000 to 2011.
This poses a huge problem for politicians and environmentalists who want rapidly developing nations, like China, to cut their fossil fuel use in an effort to curb global warming. But China’s economy relies heavily on cheap sources of electricity, like coal, oil and natural gas.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), China alone produced 46 percent of the world’s coal supply — four times more than the U.S. produced. Chinese coal production accounted for nearly 70 percent of the 3.2 billion ton increase in global coal production in the last decade.
On top of that, China is also the world’s largest coal consumer, accounting for 49 percent of world consumption. The next largest coal consumer, the U.S., only uses 11 percent of the global supply.
“China’s coal consumption increased by more than 2.3 billion tons over the past 10 years, accounting for 83% of the global increase in coal consumption,” EIA notes. “Coal accounts for most of China’s energy consumption, and coal has maintained an approximate 70% share of Chinese consumption (on a Btu basis) since at least 1980.”
China’s fossil -fueled economic success has been heavily criticized by environmentalists for the huge amounts of carbon dioxide the country emits into the atmosphere every day. In 2012, China emitted 9.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accounted for 70 percent of the increased emissions that year.
But China’s status as the world’s largest carbon emitter and coal user make it the keystone to any global effort to fight global warming — which creates a huge problem for an international climate agreement.
While China has paid some lip service to cutting emissions, its economic growth is underpinned on cheap, abundant energy, which is exactly what coal provides for them. Any agreement with China to cut coal use would would require an alternative cheap energy source, or massive form of massive payments to offset high energy prices and slower economic growth.
Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) chief Achim Steiner came to an understanding over global warming. China and the UN promised to assist poor countries in cutting carbon dioxide emissions
“China would like to continue to collaborate with UNEP to enhance green development and sustainable environmental management,” Li said. “China has contributed US $6 million to the UNEP trust fund and will continue to make contributions to that fund into the future.”
This agreement gave international players more confidence that China would get serious on climate, but it remains to be seen if the country substantially cuts its coal use.
A paper published by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said China’s coal consumption could peak by 2020 if the country starts making major reforms in the next couple of years.
“China could intensify its efforts to reduce its reliance on coal, in the form of a plan to peak its coal consumption by 2020 (or earlier), as has been suggested as a possibility in some discussions occurring in China, and phase it out thereafter,” says the report.
But China has yet to make any significant cuts to its coal use, which has grown rapidly in the past decade.
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