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
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.