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 Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.