A study published this November by “End Coal” (bit.ly/coal-c) demonstrates the extent to which China is driving the continued growth of the world’s coal fleet.
2018, they note, marked the first time in decades that the coal fleet outside of China shrank; a decrease in capacity of 8.1 gigawatts (GW) over an 18 month period. This is due to an ongoing decline in commissioning of new coal power plants, coupled with steady retirements.
However, over the same period, China increased its coal fleet by 42.9 GW, five times the magnitude of the net decrease beyond China.
Much of this growth is a brief but massive spree of project permitting between September 2014 to March 2016, during which the central government delegated this to provincial authorities who had strong incentives to approve and build them to meet economic targets. This spree put 245 GW of new projects into the pipeline, more than Europe or India’s current total. There has been a slow-down on new proposals since that boom.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found keeping warming well below 2°C – not even 1.5°C, the more ambitious but more generally advocated target — requires a 58-70% reduction in global coal power generation by 2030 below current levels, and 85-90% by 2035.
China needs to have phased out most of its coal power by 2035 to meet the IPCC scenario. This will be difficult even without further expansion – China has by far the largest usage of any country in the world — and is incompatible with proposed expansions. If China continues to increase until 2035, its coal power generation alone will be more than three times as large as the global limit on coal power use determined by the IPCC to keep warming well below 2°C.
Coal power plants are generally designed to last 30-50 years, but many or most are kept open beyond the age they are designed to last. This is partly because they require a significant up-front capital investment. Constructing new coal power stations now thus adds political and economic inertia to the fossil economy for decades to come.
So far, I’ve mostly talked about coal power capacity, the amount of energy that could be produced if they were all fully running simultaneously. China’s coal power fleet is overbuilt, with the average running hours for China’s coal plants hovering around 50% since 2015, running significantly under capacity.
In 2019, globally, there has been an unprecedented fall in coal fired electricity production – that is, capacity in use – and it is on track to drop by 3% (see bit.ly/coal-g). In China, energy demand continues to grow, but has fallen to around 3% per year from almost 7% per year for the previous too. In 2017-18 coal-fired power generation grew by 6.6% per year in China.
When energy use expands at a faster rate, coal in particular is used to fill that gap. Energy production by coal power stations is much more variable at will than from most low-carbon sources.
As Andreas Malm argues in Fossil Capital, to a large extent the growth in coal capacity in China is driven by international and globally mobile capital.
In pursuit of the most profitable conditions to perform production in, capital relocates around the world. To produce commodities it needs minimum levels of infrastructure, and often education. On the other hand, class struggle by workers can push up wages, pushing down the rate of profit. These features are variable around the world, so some places are less attractive hosts for capitalist production.
There is thus a tendency to move production to countries with lower labour costs for exportable commodities. Countries — such as China — set up adequate energy and transportation infrastructure to tempt international capital. These rely on fossil fuel, exuding carbon dioxide. Only significantly developed fossil economies attract such globally mobile capital. This process drives the development and expansion of fossil economies.
Furthermore, lower-wage economies have lower quality, less efficient, and more polluting technology and infrastructure.
Production and capital accumulation are thus more carbon intensive by relocating to these.
Worse still, this relocation is premised on export of most of the goods, increasing the transport infrastructure and usage as they are shipped around the world from the low-wage exporting economy to the higher-wage consumer markets.
China is an export-dominated economy. Its power stations are more polluting than the equivalent in Europe or the USA, where most of the goods are exported to.
The rapid process of land displacement, pumping high numbers of individuals into a reserve-army of labour, has already or will shortly slow in China, allowing wages to be pushed up more than they have to date. If capitalism continues as now we can expect further processes of relocation.
This emphasises the need for solidarity with workers’, social, and environmental movements in China and Hong Kong against China’s autocratic regime and ruling class.
COP25 fails: fight “from below” needed
This year’s climate conference in Madrid, COP25, was a failure even by the standards of its aims. 27,000 delegates participated in the conference from 2-15 of December, and despite it overrunning by two days, agreements were not made in many key areas.
The agreed ambitions were lower than hoped — aiming to go further than “less than 2°C” (above pre-industrial temperatures), but not “less than 1.5°C”. The concrete policies fail to live up to even these ambitions.
Article 6, around carbon trading, was not agreed upon. This is arguably the best outcome given the potential harm of carbon trading. However carbon trading has a fairly central place within the logic of the Paris agreements.
Climate finance, compensation for loss and damage, “just transition” discussions, and more, also gained no agreement.
There was, yet again, no progress in long-running negotiations over how non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions — such as methane and nitrous oxide — converted into CO2-equivalent; “common metrics”. In agriculture, developing nations called for more money to support farming adaption, but as with other issues concerning finance, developed countries pushed back.
Decisions in many areas were postponed to COP26, in Glasgow next year.
On 12-13 December, EU heads of state did agree to make the bloc “climate neutral” by 2050, currently exempting Poland, and the European Commission revealed a “European Green Deal”,
If it becomes law it will commit at least 25% of the EU’s long-term budget to climate action, tens of billions of euros per year. The European Investment Bank announced intentions to lend an average of €200bn/year for climate action and sustainability. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50% of 1990 levels or even lower by 2030, and to reduce waste through recycling.
It seems likely that the EU will use this to put pressure on China to do likewise in upcoming trade negotiations.
This European Green Deal describes many positive aspirations for environmental transitions in different industries, but it does not present concrete policy which would make that a reality. □