This post was originally meant to be about the 10 things which made me depressed about China’s environmental future. However, as I started writing it, I realised that China’s energy future and its consequences for climate change specifically was worthy of a post all alone. It’s also the subject I know most about. At the outset it’s worth saying that those in search of a laugh a minute read should probably stop now – this isn’t a post which is particularly optimistic. But hopefully it should help dispel some myths and provoke a debate (as well as arm you with a gunful of stats and trivia for any dinner party debate)…
Firstly some stats and background: it’s not as boring as it sounds!
So in the ‘hope’ post I gave some nice optimistic stats about the growth of renewable energy. Well here’s a bit of a party pooper for you. Here are some stats about the growth of fossil fuel energy in China:
(all data unless otherwise stated is from BP’s statistical review of world energy and BP 2030 energy outlook)
(note: click on the images to enlarge to get a better view of some of the graphs)
China builds on average one new coal plant every week. There’s some debate as to whether this oft quoted stat is actually true (interesting article here ) but irrespective, the fact remains that China’s coal derived power generation dwarfs everything else (81%) and will continue to do so in the future (only dropping to 60% by 2030 owing mainly to the rise in nuclear).
Can we hope mother earth will be an environmental saviour by running out of coal before it can do too much damage to the climate? Again, sadly not in any useful timeframe. According to BP’s statistical review of world energy, there are 109 years left of globally proven coal reserves at current consumption levels. China, despite holding 13.3% of total world coal reserves, only has around 31 years left from its own supplies, putting even more pressure on imports from overseas (which are even more energy intensive)
China isn’t naturally blessed with a lot of oil (about 1% of the global total…In absolute terms this is actually quite a lot and I witnessed a booming oil industry and nodding donkeys aplenty in Xinxiang (no wonder China is so keen to keep it).
But it pales into insignificance when compared to reserves in places such as Canada and Saudi Arabia),
But boy has China suddenly got the oil habit.
Although environmentalist love to give oil a good bashing, the problem is that it’s so bloody useful! And as China grows its economy it’s going to be using a lot more of this useful black stuff. China is already the world’s second largest consumer of oil (using just under 12% – check the disparity between this and it’s proved reserves for a nice little insight into why Chinese oil companies are currently on a global tour of Africa, the middle East and Central Asia), and the demand is of course going to grow. In 2013 China consumed 10 millions barrels of oil per day, second only to the US on 18.5m. By 2025 China is expected to overtake the US as number 1.
Seen by some as the saviour (it burns with roughly half the carbon intensity of coal) and by some as the enemy (it dents the competitiveness of renewables and shale gas specifically has very public environmental downsides), gas is still a relatively under utilised fuel source in China. So of course it’s going to grow, particularly as the US ramps up its shale gas exporting capability and starts flogging it at much better prices across the Pacific than it can get at home. Conventional gas reserves in China are fairly limited (1.5% of world’s reserves), yet the unconventional resource (mainly in the form of shale gas) is largely unknown. Some estimates ((MLR)) put it at 30 trillion cubic metres (for reference this would be the largest in the world and is some 10 times greater than existing proved reserves). Either way, one thing is for sure. If the resource gets proved it will get extracted. I just can’t for the life of me see all the political wrangling which is going on with shale in the UK at the moment. China will just authorise it to be extracted. However, it’s not going to be an easy process, as many international oil & gas companies are already finding. Water scarcity is a huge barrier. There’s not time to go into the rights and wrongs of shale gas extraction right now – just putting it out there that it’s going to be a huge source of future discussion in China.
Here’s a cool little infographic explaining the situation.
So what it all adds up to…
Sadly, what this means, is that although Chinese low carbon and renewable energy growth taken in isolation may well be spectacular, they are totally overshadowed by the forecasted growth in traditional fossil energy. Have a look at the graph below for the projections:
This may well be the short term most economic way of supplying China’s increasing energy demand. But it’s a disaster if you believe in climate change.
So what the hell does this all mean for carbon and climate change?
Although in my previous blog, I touched upon the ‘cleaning’ to a certain extent of the local pollutants associated with fossil fuel burning (namely NOX and SOX), and the improved efficiency, these alone aren’t going to make much or a dent into the climate change juggernaught.
The world in general, driven to a very large extent by Chinese demand, has become carbon constrained before it has become resource constrained. This is a crucial distinction which has only come about during the last few years. We used to worry about what happens when we run out of fossil fuels. Now we worry about how we can convince the world (China in particular) to keep them in the ground.
If China’s fossil fuel energy forecasts are delivered upon (and sadly I see no better argument as to why they won’t), we can totally and utterly forget about meeting any carbon emissions targets to avert the worst effects of climate change. 2 degrees warming (equivalent to 450 parts per million of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere) which all politicians keep telling us is what we are striving for. Forget it! It’s just not going to happen unless something very very drastic happens.
The carbon emissions associated with the growth forecast presented above will be 12 billion tonnes by 2030 from China alone. If we are to have any chance of staying within the 2 degrees target, it is estimated that total world emissions can’t be more than 24 billion tonnes in total by this date.
So China alone will be taking up half the total allowance. In other words that means that the rest of the world will have to cut their carbon emissions in half by 2030. Scarily that’s only 17 years away, and with the current international climate negotiations in stalemate that’s looking very unlikely to happen! Even though China’s carbon intensity is expected to peak by 2040 and then fall, sadly that will be way too late.
Sadly if current global trends play out as forecast above we are in line with over 850 CO2 ppm, or more than 5 degree warming by the end of the century.
So can Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) save the day?
If you don’t know already CCS basically involves capturing the carbon emitted from (static) fossil fuel sources and burying them underground.
I spent 2 years of my life working on this technology in the belief that a) the (near and medium term) future is regrettably fossil fuel dominated, b) this will mean carbon targets are going to be missed massively c) the science behind the carbon targets is correct and negative consequences implied fairly accurate and d) the only way to avoid this scenario was by mastering CCS. And fast.
Sadly, although globally we may be well on our way to mastering the fundamentals of the technology, we are certainly nowhere near implementing it fast (enough) at a cost which wouldn’t massively hinder the economy. The International Energy Agency (IEA – the de facto bible for energy stats and forecasts) paints an optimistic picture of how globally we can solve the fundamental challenge of doubling energy supply by 2050, whilst halving CO2 emissions on the same period (effective cutting globally intensity by a factor of 4). Here’s a great graph they’ve produced showing how to 2035….
As you can see, CCS provides quite a large chunk of this potential. Hence a logical takeaway from this is:
‘China is the biggest user of energy and consumer of fossil fuels in this scenario. Hence China must implement CCS on a massive scale. And it must do it fast’.
So any good signs regarding this? Fraid not folks. China currently has only a few small scale demonstrating facilities and even these are massively behind their intended original timeline. Globally we’ve made a bit of a pigs ear of CCS so far. It’s widely believed that we have all the technological know how to do it and that there is more than enough space underground (although this is the source of some debate). Sadly, it’s just too damn expensive. Nobody in their right mind wants to (at least) double the costs of their electricity generation (which is at least the current incremental cost). To be on track for the IEA’s ‘CCS lifeline’ to save the day we should be capturing and storing 255 million tonnes (MT) per year of CO2 by 2020, Currently we are capturing (though not necessarily storing) a paltry 23 million tonnes and the most likely Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates point to only 52MT by 2017. China is slated to contribute very little to this.
Until China really really believes that climate change is its biggest problem, then it’s going to do no more than lip service to the industry (or maybe develop technology which can be utilised in countries who have massive government subsidies for it, or implement small scale carbon ‘utilisation’ projects).
If you think about it, this is logical. If the climate science turns out to be wrong, or the effects not as bad as predicted, then CCS really is the biggest waste of money ever. It will serve no other purpose other than to dent economies and burn even more fossil fuels (due to the c.10% energy penalty involved).
So where does this all leave me? Sadly the more and more I’ve come to know about energy and climate change the more and more pessimistic I’ve become. Over the last few years I’ve moved from a position of believing (almost pathologically) that the climate science was fact and there was still time to do something about it, to hoping that the science is wrong or the effects not as bad as they are portrayed by the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change). My experience in China has only reaffirmed this belief.
However, my time in China has also made me much more aware of some of the potentially much more pressing environmental concerns which previously I hadn’t considered so much. It’s also made me realise there’s so much more to sustainability and environmental issues than climate change (which I think wrongly I’d previously used as a synonym for sustainability)
And looking at those things is sadly cause for potentially even greater concern. That’s the subject of the next blog in this series…