China’s CO2 emissions are soaring. But in Monthly Review’s world, they are ‘flattening’

April 13, 2021

Lord help us. While China’s coal use keeps rising, and its government plans for that to continue, there are still “Marxists” out there trying to convince us that China is leading the world to a clean, green “ecological civilisation”.

It’s the editors of Monthly Review in the United States that I’m talking about. They have just published (on line here) an exchange between Richard Smith, me and themselves about this.

My involvement in this started when I had a go at one of Monthly Review’s editors, John Bellamy Foster, on this blog. I wrote that:

□ Foster’s optimism about the Chinese Communist Party leading a “world ecological revolution” was misplaced;

□ His claim that China has made “significant steps toward a more sustainable development” was empty, given the way that the Chinese government has in the last 20-odd years – with full knowledge of the global warming danger – overseen the greatest coal-fired economic boom in history;

□ “Talk of [China’s] massive promotion of wind and solar technology’, without discussing it in this context [of the gigantic coal mountain], is a monstrous delusion”.

The underlying problem is that we live in different worlds. In the MR editors’ world, the Chinese government is part of the solution. In the world I live in, it’s part of the problem.

The exchange in Monthly Review on line has not shifted my view. And here are a few more thoughts in response.

■ The MR editors refer to “evidence provided in our March Notes from the Editors that China is flattening out its carbon emissions”. There is no such evidence. There is a link to Climate Action Tracker, which wrote:

In the last few years, there had been hopeful signs that China’s CO2 emissions were flattening. However, CO2 emissions rose in 2018 and 2019, and we estimate 2020 GHG emissions will increase by 0.8% in our upper bound and decrease by 7.7% in our lower bound compared to 2019 levels, with most of the drop due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Climate Action Tracker’s guarded optimism has not been borne out. Chinese statistics, released since that summary was written, show that CO2 emissions rose by 1.5% in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

So China may be “flattening out its carbon emissions” in MR’s world. But in the real world, they are still going up. The main driver is China’s “dirty recovery” from the pandemic, according to China energy researcher Lauri Myllyvirta of Carbon Brief.

China’s president Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated that CO2 emissions will peak by 2030. Many, but far from all, analysts think this target could be reached. But the problem is the target itself, and the Paris agreement of which it forms part. It allows for a frightful amount of climate damage.

This graph, from an earlier post, shows China’s coal consumption (red line), compared to its renewables consumption (green line)

■ The MR editors once again portray China’s coal dependence as a primarily external factor. They couldn’t bring themselves to mention e.g. that China generated 53% of the world’s coal-fired electricity in 2020, or that it approved 46 GW of new coal-fired plants last year. (That is, China just last year approved construction of half as much coal-fired power generation again as Poland’s total). Instead, they underlined:

[China] now has the world’s largest high-efficiency (“clean”) coal power system, with “ultra-low emissions technology” incorporated into 80 per cent of its coal-fired plants, which are more efficient in reducing emissions than coal plants in the US.

Even the sharpest-eyed MR readers might have thought that those “emissions” were the same “emissions” the article had talked about all along – CO2 emissions. They are not. They are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions.

In the short term, it’s brilliant news that these will be blocked by ultra-low emissions (ULE) technology. That helps to reduce the number of lives cut short by air pollution. And of course it is true that new, more efficient plants use slightly less coal to produce the same amount of electricity.

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Strategies for the new climate war

April 6, 2021

Review of The New Climate War: the fight to take back our planet, by Michael E. Mann (London: Scribe Publications, 2021). By Simon Pirani

Fossil fuel companies, right-wing plutocrats and oil-funded governments “can no longer insist, with a straight face, that nothing is happening”, Michael Mann writes. Outright denial of the physical evidence of climate change is no longer credible.

So they have shifted to a softer form of denialism while keeping the oil flowing and fossil fuels burning, engaging in a multipronged offensive based on deception, distraction and delay. This is the new climate war, and the planet is losing (page 3).

The enemy’s weapons in this new war, Mann argues, include greenwash, illusory technofixes such as capturing carbon from the air, and deflecting attention on to individual behaviour instead of what companies do.

The Climate Action Tracker thermometer

Mann, a climatologist at the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State University in the US, was in the old climate war, too. He was lead author of a 1999 article featuring the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, showing that temperatures ramped sharply upwards in the late 20th century, out of the range of the previous 1000 years.

In 2001, after the graph appeared in the Third Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate science deniers orchestrated a public hate campaign against its authors, and others who worked with them.

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