Ecocentric

The Scariest Environmental Fact in the World

China is burning almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. We won't solve global warming until that changes

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See this sobering graph from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA):

As the data show, China is now burning almost as much coal as the rest of the world — combined. And despite impressive support from Beijing for renewable energy and a dawning understanding about the dangers of air pollution, coal use in China is poised to continue rising, if slower than it has in recent years. That’s deadly for the Chinese people — see the truly horrific air pollution in Beijing this past month — and it’s dangerous for the rest of the world. Coal already accounts for 20% of global greenhouse-gas emissions, making it one of the biggest causes of man-made climate change. Combine that with the direct damage that air pollution from coal combustion does to human health, and there’s a reason why some have called coal the enemy of the human race.

Of course, there’s a reason why coal is so popular in China and in much of the rest of the world: it’s very, very cheap. And that’s why, despite the danger coal poses to health and the environment, neither China nor many other rapidly growing developing nations are likely to turn away from it. (If you really want to get scared, see this report from the International Energy Agency — hat tip to Ed Crooks of the Financial Times — which notes that by 2017, India could be burning more importing as much coal as China.) That’s likely to remain the case in poor nations until clean energy can compete with coal on price — and that day hasn’t come yet.

The EIA’s chart also shows how limited President Obama’s ability to deal with climate change really is. The reality is that the vast majority of the carbon emissions to come will be emitted by developing nations like China — and much of that will be due to coal. As we’ve reported, the U.S. has reduced coal use and cut carbon emissions in recent years, even in the absence of comprehensive climate legislation, thanks to tougher air-pollution regulations and cheap natural gas from fracking. Yet even as coal has waned in the U.S., it’s still being burned by the gigaton in other countries. We won’t beat climate change until we’ve beaten coal, but I’m not sure there’s much the U.S. can do to persuade China or India to quit cheap energy — no matter the cost.

MORE: The War on Coal Is Being Won in the U.S., but the Real Battle Is Overseas

80 comments
MickG
MickG

Coal can be burned cleanly by Gasification and Scrubbing.  CO2 is not a problem because its not the cause of Global Warming. Most of this anti coal rant is nonsense. 

eduhsim
eduhsim

It's all about cheaper sources of energy. The cost effectiveness of coal was also instrumental in propelling US and Europe to become industrial and economic giants. Now, it's China's turn (and perhaps, India). Soon, Indochina and the rest of SEAsia will follow suit. Blaming China (and India) now is the least effective approach. Nations such as the US, some European countries, and Japan should innovate cheap ways of generating large amount of energy using resources cheaper than coal, and then share the science and technology with emerging economies like China, India and Brazil. This should solve the pollution problem. 

MarcosMarcotron
MarcosMarcotron

If countries want cleaner energy, which obviously we do, and obviously is going to happen eventually - then money needs to be spent in the first place developing it.


Telling the Chinese they're not allowed to use so much energy, when we've been quite happily using loads for decades, is simply hypocritical and wont work.

Investing more money in making cleaner energy is the best bet. Or not investing any more, and just waiting till it comes.

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

This is why some of us have been saying for a while now: it is China that is threatening to make global warming much, much worse, not the US. It is China that has to kick the coal habit, whether they replace it with gas (still bad, but nowhere near  as bad), or wind, solar or even nuclear power.

I also recall people complaining years ago that imposing restrictions on the US for carbon emissions while letting China do what they wanted was a non starter. Now it should be clear why they felt that way, even if they still did the wrong thing then.

MikeAlan
MikeAlan

great, blame china and stay out of my pockets and trying to raise my taxes

StaceyVermaak
StaceyVermaak

Headlines like this wrongly position china as this scary environmental monster when the world needs to accept that china also produces most of the goods that we use. Any imports from china should come attached with an environmental debt- not to reduce imports from china, but to make us aware of our shared responsibility as a global community. People need to know that there is a cost attached to cheap imported goods so that they can easily make the connection between the consumer choices they make and the effect those choices have on the environment

momo475
momo475

While the US might now be moving toward cleaner energy and a solution to the changing climate, we had years of development and reckless abuse of resources. We can't persecute and blame developing countries like China so much, especially when their development not only resembles our own but also provides us with much of the goods we use today.China is doing more than we ever did to work toward clean energy. However, that our world cannot continue along this path remains. We have a responsibility to work with China for solutions to a problem that will affect us for years to come. I believe in leading by example, and the United States has the ability to lead the charge in development and change. 

ktmckenna
ktmckenna

Brian!  Interesting piece but reinforces the convenient and self-defeating U.S. narrative that has sunk multiple climate agreements: "if we can't get China on board it's not worth doing anything ourselves".  We've all heard the "China's screwing the world" argument over and over for the past decade and I think the truth is quite a bit more subtle (and interesting) than that.

First, not sure if gross numbers are a fair comparison between U.S. and China, considering geographical and population gaps.  With less than 5 per cent of the global population the US has been responsible for 29 per cent of the global cumulative emissions (between (1850 and 2006) that are causing climate change; China, with 20-22 per cent of the global population, accounts for 8.62 per cent of emissions.

Also - this fact blew me away and would be a fresh story for you to dig into --China’s investment in clean energy dwarfs that of the United States. In 2009, China invested $34.6 billion in clean energy (or 0.39 per cent of its GDP), while the United States only put in $18.6 billion (or 0.13 per cent of its GDP).

Bottom line: China is way more vulnerable to climate change than the U.S. is, and is already massively feeling the effects.  Something's gotta give, and it will.  The "we're all doomed b/c of India and China" thing is, in my mind, massively overdone and reinforces the incredibly unhelpful and depressing lets-do-nothing narrative in the U.S.

All stats above from Dale Jiajun Wen's "China and Climate Change - Spin, facts and realpolitik" in Development Dialogue September 2012 | What Next Volume III | Climate, Development and Equity. Check it out!


YeeChengLeong
YeeChengLeong

Don't forget China is producing most of the steel the world needs. When we find a replacement for steel, perhaps we will burn less coal.

JennySmith1
JennySmith1

Are we just as responsible for   coal  pollution if we are the ones exporting it to other nations to burn?

donc314
donc314

Yes let's take a look at US coal exports and the great deal the US citizen gets. For example, the powder Basin deposit.

The BLM sells our coal from public land dirt cheap. Here's how: Coal companies are required to sell  coal from public land at market value. Royalties are paid to the government based on "market value" calculated on a net-back formula The intended purpose is to assure a fair price for domestic users and a fair lease price paid to the tax payers.   Sounds fair right? 

 Instead of paying the higher rates from exports the coal is transferred through straw companies and the companies claim to be selling it at the lower domestic price. While the domestic price is about $10 a ton. The coal sells for up to $100 or more in Asia.

Coal companies bid on how much they will pay for the coal. The BLM offers a unit of coal for lease only if that coal will expand an existing coal mine and only after a company asks the BLM to make the coal available. That limits the possible bidders to companies already mining coal. And the BLM often limits the number of bidders to one. .  Even if only one company bids on the coal, that bidder has to meet or exceed a “fair market value” price set by the BLM. The BLM claims the fair market value is secret. However previous winning  bids are public knowledge. If you are only bidder and you know to the penny what the last guy paid you are in a great bidding position.

Coal companies pay royalties of 12.5 percent of revenues. The federal government gets 52 percent of the royalty payments; the rest goes to either the Wyoming or Montana state government. Companies also pay a rental fee of at least $3 per acre. The companies can deduct operating expenses from the royalty payment such as processing and transporting. 

Paying royalties calculated on the net-back formula for exports to Asia from Wyoming and Montana rather than on the
benchmark domestic price would have yielded around $40 million additional revenue for the government last year alone,
according to data from Goldman Sachs and other analysts, and figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The companies involved get rich, the politicians get "donations" and we get get stuck with ruined land and toxic waste. 


dennisearlbaker
dennisearlbaker

In my opinion




We need to replace the fossil fuel power plants, the primary source of GHG. Now!

At a scale required to accomplish this task :

Ethanol starves people : not a viable option.

Fracking releases methane : not a viable option.

Cellulose Bio Fuel Uses Food Land : not a viable option

Solar uses food land : Not a viable option

Wind is Intermittent : Not a viable option



All Human and Agricultural Organic Waste can be converted to hydrogen, through exposure intense radiation!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/DennisearlBaker/2012-a-breakthrough-for-r_b_1263543_135881292.html

The Radioactive Materials exist now, and the Organic waste is renewable daily.

Ending the practice of dumping sewage into our water sources.

Air, Water, Food and Energy issues, receive significant positive impacts .

Reducing illness / health care costs as well !



Dennis Baker
Penticton BC V2A1P9

EnviroEquipment.com
EnviroEquipment.com

With so much of China's coal coming from US mines, there's not much chance that American politicians will pressure China into using less of the fossil fuel, even as we ourselves away from it in favor of natural gas.

DanMan'99
DanMan'99

And why the *Yoink!* does this matter? The earth goes through a couple stages of gradual warming and cooling per century. It is not the end of the world if China burns 3.8 billion tons of coal. They produce a ton of things these days, including the devices that people have used to comment on this article.

harrywr2
harrywr2

It's only scary if one assumes that the almost 4 billion tons of coal china is using is going to 'energy'.

It is not. this is the problem with viewing China thru a parochial lens.


In 2012 China produced 3.9 billion MW hours of electricity using coal. That works out to be about 1.95 billion tons of coal. The different in the amount of electricity producted from coal between 2011 and 2012 is less then 1/2 of 1%.

China used another 2 billion tonnes of coal making things like steel and cement and various chemicals.

Building Urban Housing for 1+ billion people when population growth is stagnant pretty much means that a huge quantity of China's coal consumption is 'one time'. 

Eventually China's real estate boom will come to an end...and China will be 'leading the world' in emission reductions as result.


jdyer2
jdyer2

You report proudly that America has done a great job reducing coal usage.  The fact is that as US coal consumption slows, that coal is still being mined in the US at high rates- it's just being exported instead of burned here.  A ton of coal saved from US burning is one more ton that can be exported to China for their growing consumption. 

c2e
c2e

China is certainly heavy on coal resources.  In fact in terms of domestic resources, they are second only to the U.S.  The more important fact here is that over the past decade, while China's coal output has doubled, their coal imports have increased by a factor of 60 (http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/china_coal.pdf). You want China to stop burning so much coal?  Stop digging it up and selling it to them.  Politics around job creation for ports in the pacific northwest are impeding this debate.  We may be making a move towards clean energy at home, but what's the use if we're promoting coal's use abroad?


wrathbrow
wrathbrow

Nuclear energy continues to be one of the best energy resources available today. It is highly efficient from an energy density point of view, very reliable, and when there are not any accidents it is good for the environment, when spent fuel being is handled correctly. It is the danger of a melt down like in Japan that scares (as it should) people. But coal pollution will kill far more people than nuclear energy will, even accounting for the differences in production levels/use. But tens of thousands of people dying slowly gather less attention that hundreds dying more quickly.

KountyKobbler
KountyKobbler

Why not educate them on how to  fractional distill coal  for its components  so that they use the refined versions  that are less polluting  or teach them fluidized combustion    for the same reason  that they can use that  residue  to pave roadways shared information   is safer than trade secrets that  make the air worse for all.

ChasL
ChasL

BTW, does the EIA publish per capita coal consumptions around the world? I think that'll show how scary the bias this article is presenting.

Piacevole
Piacevole

Parts of China are currently experiencing air pollution problems which rival what happened in parts of England and the United States last century.  The question will be just how serious it gets before the cost of burning coal has to include the medical costs its use incurs.

China is also working on developing "alternate" technology: it's a leading supplier of solar panels, windmills, and so forth.  When the true expense  of coal use is totted up, it's not going to be a question of just the cost per BTU.  It must also include the costs of climate change, damage done by exreme weather events, and the medical and social costs of treating the problems from the pollution creates.  We also have to add in the transport expenses, the dangers of coal mines, the release of methane into the atmosphere, and so forth.  Coal isn't really cheap, and when the overall costs are considered, practically anything  else would be better.. 

anjum
anjum

when you live in a country like India and have limited resources...just existing is a chore....youve got to forgive us for using cheap coal...

EukaryoteGrex
EukaryoteGrex

@MickG Physics makes it eminently clear that increased atmospheric CO2 will warm the planet.  If something else is ALSO warming the planet, then that makes atmospheric CO2 rise MORE problematic, not less.

joeaverager
joeaverager

@epitygxanwn Coal - gasoline - oil - nukes - - - the world needs to come to grips with the notion that billions of people in India and China are aspiring for an American middle class lifestyle. That's alot of energy needs to satiate - not matter what the energy source and a huge amount pollution. 

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@StaceyVermaak But how would you "attach an environmental debt"? Remember that Bush let them into WTO, it would have to be done within WTO rules. Good luck on that:(

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@momo475 "we had years of development and reckless abuse of resources" -- we did, yes, but most of that was when we had no idea how much damage AGW could cause. Now that we know, we are making serious efforts to cut back -- even though we are clearly running late on that, and against enormous opposition from the fossil-fuel industry.

But that enormous opposition from the fossil fuel industry finds a LOT of support in China's refusal to cut back on coal. It may be childish, but they are getting away with insisting that as long as China does not agree to cut back, then neither will they.

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@ktmckenna How did you miss the spin in Dale's own article? Between 1850 and 2006 covers a lot of years. During most of those years, we had NO evidence that industrial emissions would cause such climate harm. Evidence to that end started only with the 80s. Yet here you and Dale are  trying to pin moral culpability on the US for emissions that took place during that time.

The fact that you and Dale are hiding is: China is continuing to increase the worst kinds of emissions even now when we KNOW how much harm it is doing.

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@YeeChengLeong But we had thriving steel industries in the US and then Japan before China "produced most of the steel the world needs". How did China ever take the lead? By holding their currency artificially low to undercut the US and Japan.

joeaverager
joeaverager

@donc314 Thanks for the detail. So little of this gets spelled out as plainly as what you did. 

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@BruceMiller Although it is good news that China takes Thorium nuclear seriously, if you can really repeat with a straight face, "All of these sites indicate that Thorium LFTR reactors are in fact superior to U.S. current enriched uranium systems.", then your sites are not trustworthy -- and neither are you.

No, we do NOT yet know that they are 'superior'. Sure, there are several promising reasons to believe it MIGHT prove superior, but the technology is still untested, and there are even known problems we do not yet have solutions too, such as how to handle the very radioactive wastes.

Don't forget: though the thorium cycle produces far less waste, what it does produce is more radioactive -- by a lot. So all the handling has to be done remotely or with radiation-resistant robots -- which are expensive.

FrankSchuchard
FrankSchuchard

That looks like Byron nuclear plant "Bryon, Illinios" in the background not a coal generator

Piacevole
Piacevole

@dennisearlbaker There are areas to collect energy from both the sun and wind which would not interfere with agriculture at all: desert areas and mountain ranges, for example.  Geothermal energy is available, and could be exploited, in some areas.  There is tidal energy.  Wave activity energy.  There are many sources which we're not even trying to use.

We need to work on developing battery storage.  That's the real choke point in using various alternative sources of energy.

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@DanMan'99 Why does it matter? Because this is NOT "gradual warming". It is taking place much too fast. WIth every new coal plant China builds, another species dies.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@harrywr2 What use the coal is put to is irrelevant if it is, in any way, burned, and this includes being coked: the output of carbon oxides is the problem.  Whether it's used to make steam to turn a turbine, or used to producer steel, whether it is steam coal or metallurgical coal,  doesn't matter.  

One thing about population is that for quite a while its numbers have been increasing, creating a need for more of pretty much everything: energy, metals, food, housing, whatever.  The current problem with the output of carbon oxides and methane is that the "eventually" you posit will come after the problem is irreversible.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@c2e I agree, that is a problem.  Tell it to the coal companies.  Much of their "book value" lies in coal reserves which are still underground.  They are singularly unwilling to let it stay there, and simply "take the loss."

Piacevole
Piacevole

@wrathbrow Solve the problem of long-term storage of waste fissile material, and then let's talk.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@KountyKobbler Is fractional distillation a net improvement?  Petroleum refineries are pretty problematic. 

em4rtz
em4rtz

@anjum yes forgive you for dumping for pollution into the air... maybe when you all die of lung cancer you're thoughts will be different. 

Piacevole
Piacevole

@anjum I understand why it's happening.  I just think that the "cheap" notion is an illusion.

MickG
MickG

@EukaryoteGrex @MickG Physics makes it eminently clear that increased atmospheric CO2 is not warming the planet. 400ppm Atmospheric CO2 amounts to about 1 molecule of  CO2 for every 2500 molecules of atmosphere. There is no law of physics that permits 1 molecule of CO2 to determine the temperature of 2500 molecules of atmosphere. Actually 95% of the so called "greenhouse effect" of the atmosphere is caused by water vapor & water droplets (humidity and Clouds)  not CO2.  And so far humans can't control relative humidity and clouds. You been brainwashed, Buddy!

momo475
momo475

@epitygxanwn @momo475 I agree with you, and it does seem childish. But if neither will give first, how do you propose we move forward?

melonheadx13
melonheadx13

@Piacevole @wrathbrow oit's coming but at least 20 years off now.  read about next generation nuclear power on wikipedia if nowhere else.  the new fuels can be held in your hand and mostly get used up in the process of creating electrical energy.

NickAnderson
NickAnderson

@MickG @EukaryoteGrex You need quit talking about physics because you clearly don't understand them, CO2 adds density to the atmosphere trapping more thermal energy and air pollutants, which then get filtered through the oceans, increasing ocean acidification, and wiping out all manner of sea life. I don't expect to convince you though, energy companies manufacture all kinds of ridiculous studies to point the finger in some other direction, which is why you think global warming is an invention of left wing propaganda, even though every major scientific institution on the planet says otherwise, in reality you're the one that has been brainwashed, you're a tool for greedy billionaires to manipulate and use to spew their lies, and the truly sad thing is, these people who are using you, they don't give a frell about you, you could die choking on carbon emissions right in front of them and they wouldn't so much as shed a tear, you troll the internet fighting for their cancerous cause and at the end of day, you literally have less than nothing to show for it, way to make great use of your life.

MickG
MickG

@EukaryoteGrex @MickG You obviously don't know what you're talking about.  The First law of thermodynamics deals with the totality of Energy in a closed system. The Second Law of Thermodynamics Describes the the way in which   heat is transferred in climate systems  From hotter places to colder places, From the warmer Earth's surfaces to Colder Outer Space and Polar Regions.

momo475
momo475

@epitygxanwn @momo475 When I wrote about neither "giving first," I was referring to your mention of the fossil fuel industry and China. I guess their immobility is the reason we can't really move forward? So if current US and European efforts aren't enough, do you believe in more restrictions and regulations? Or do you think China and India will eventually realize they must reduce emissions? I'm kind of hoping technology will save us and clean energy will become cheap and accessible.

epitygxanwn
epitygxanwn

@momo475 @epitygxanwn Interesting you should ask, "how do we move forward". Forward motion is no longer possible. We missed that chance. Now all we get is mitigation -- and not much of that. Besides: your premise is false: we DID "give first". US and European carbon emissions are down (though not by enough), China's and India's are both rising rapidly.

Piacevole
Piacevole

@em4rtz @Piacevole @wrathbrow Rockets usually, but not always, go where we send them.  Remember the ones which did not?  Now, consider the joys of having one bearing spent but still dangerous fuel blowing up on the pad, in the atmosphere, in the stratosphere, and calculate the problems.