Caixin
Dec 14, 2018 07:23 PM
ENVIRONMENT

Smog Boosted China's Resolve to Cut Carbon Emissions: Expert

A coal power plant in Huai'an, Jiangsu province, produces electricity on Nov. 12. Photo: IC
A coal power plant in Huai'an, Jiangsu province, produces electricity on Nov. 12. Photo: IC

China’s efforts to reduce climate change-causing carbon emissions have been aided by its more immediate air pollution woes, the director of several major Chinese energy organizations says.

The nation’s notorious smog problem has helped make the case for an energy transformation from coal to natural gas and renewables, Li Junfeng, who heads China’s National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation, as well as the Renewable Energy Research Professional Committee of the China Energy Research Council, told Caixin on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Krakow, Poland this week.

“Since the 1970s, coal has accounted for more than 70% of China’s energy structure. We have always said that we want to change the structure, but have never successfully done so,” he told Caixin. “Finally, because of the smog in 2013, air pollution made everyone determined to improve the energy structure and reduce coal consumption, and then we started to see results.”

In 2014, the State Council announced the “Energy Development Strategic Action Plan (2014-2020),” which proposed to reduce coal to 62% of China’s energy structure by 2020. The ratio fell to 60% in 2017, and China’s revised goal is to reduce it to 58% by 2020.

“Everyone is still conflicted over reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but when it comes to reducing pollutants and improving the quality of the atmosphere, everyone agrees. So through this synergistic effect, we will be able to reduce local environmental pollution and promote the reduction of carbon emissions. The resistance to this is much lower,” Li said. Coal reduction efforts have been effective because they were linked to air pollution prevention efforts, Li said.

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On the evening of Nov. 26, Beijing was blanketed by smog. Photo: VCG

Li said that as China’s energy demands continue to grow, developing cleaner energy — including renewable energy, nuclear power, and natural gas — will be necessary to meet emissions reduction targets. While China has invested greatly in natural gas and renewable energy, its use of nuclear energy has become “more and more expensive,” Li says. “There is a lot of discussion around the safety of nuclear power, but in fact the biggest problem is economic. The nuclear power plants around the world, including in the United States, are not economical.”

On the other hand, renewable electricity and natural gas are decreasing in cost. Many oil companies, including PetroChina and Sinopec, are adjusting their strategies to focus on natural gas — to transform from pure oil companies to “integrated energy service companies,” Li said.

China’s Belt and Road Project has been a source of controversy, with critics accusing the nation of using it to transfer high-emission industries to Belt and Road nations and retaining less polluting ones in China. Li claimed China was merely fulfilling the urgent power needs of many nations, and said when it transfers energy it chooses the cleanest energies with the lowest emissions.

“We have required all of our cooperation agreements to be in line with national emission reduction efforts and compatible with the target country’s own emission reduction efforts. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is an opportunity for these countries to develop,” Li said.

“It is impossible to require a developing country that is lagging behind China to reduce their coal consumption. Climate change is an environmental issue, but it is also a developmental issue.”

Like many Chinese policy experts, Li sees development as a panacea for all problems. “Of course, in the middle of the development process, countries must go as far as they can to adopt advanced technology,” he added. For example, through the Belt and Road Initiative, participating countries can elect to adopt some of China’s more advanced solar and renewable technologies.

Contact reporter Ren Qiuyu (qiuyuren@caixin.com)

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