Chinese government promises "whatever it takes" to cap coal use

Consumption planned to peak at 4bn tonnes.

There is widespread fear that Chinese coal consumption — which nearly rivals the entire rest of the world combined — will undo our efforts to combat climate change. Last week, I suggested that the only way to prevent that happening was to lead by example, cutting our own emissions in a way that was unambiguously aimed at fighting climate change:

The Chinese state isn't necessarily adverse to following the lead of the West in cutting carbon emissions, so long as its clear that we actually are doing it to fight climate change. That's an argument for installing carbon capture and sequestration technology, for instance, because that's something which has no other purpose. Of course, such technology needs to improve its efficiency — both in how much carbon it can scrub, how long it can store it, and how much it costs to do — but to do so would send an unequivocal message that the fight was one we wanted part of.

But it may not even come to that. The other trend I discussed — that of developed nations cutting coal usage for reasons unrelated to climate change — looks like it's about to hit China to. Grist's David Robert's writes:

Most projections (PDF) have coal use in China continuing to increase for decades to come. But there are reasons to think those projections overstate demand — that China’s appetite for coal may peak sooner than expected. For one thing, the Chinese government is signalling that the country’s coal consumption will peak by 2015, at 4 billion tonnes.

Obviously, a "non-binding" plan to make a plan to cap coal use is not the same as actually doing it. But not only does the Chinese government have good reason to do so — coal is a horrible pollutant, and China already has noted problems with air quality — the counterpoints are rapidly fading away. Much of the fear of ever-expanding coal use was based on an assumption of ever-expanding GDP. That assumption is being tested, and has given rise to fears of a "hard landing". But whether or not the Chinese economy crashes to the floor or gently glides to a less frenetic plateau, some of that slowdown will result in a natural reduction of the increase in coal use.

The bigger problem, Roberts points out, is the fact that the central government doesn't have the best control over the actions of the provinces. That's an issue which impacts on almost every issue in China, and fighting climate change is no exception. But if Chinese officials really are saying they will do "whatever it takes", then maybe it can be overcome.

A coal-fired power station in Huaibei, China. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496