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

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.

But in the (slightly) longer term, ULE technology makes no difference to carbon emissions. That’s not what it’s for. Indeed, researchers at Peking University warn that installing coal-fired plants with ULE could actually prolong China’s coal boom, and postpone decarbonisation, because:

The massive deployment of ULE retrofits in coal power plants may lock in high levels of CO2 emissions in the power sector, if a young and large coal fleet remains in normal operation for extra decades.

These dilemmas apparently do not exist in MR’s world.

■ The MR editors, strangely, have nothing to say about China’s 14th Five Year Plan, which covers economic policy for 2021-25, the outlines of which were published last month.

Surely this would help settle our argument about whether the Chinese government is helping, or hindering, progress in tackling dangerous global warming.

This thorough survey by Carbon Brief notes that while the idea of a “CO2 emissions cap” is mentioned in the plan outline, no actual cap has been set.

Carbon Brief quotes Min Hu of the Innovative Green Development Programme warning that, if advice from the state grid’s Energy Research Centre was followed and China sought to reduce coal’s share of electricity generation from 57% to 50% by 2030, this “still represents 100-200 GW of new coal-plant capacity”. That’s new capacity, between four and eight times as much as Australia’s total.

Climate Action Tracker concluded that while China’s net zero target for 2060 could shave 0.2-0.3 degrees off global warming by 2100, “there’s nothing new in this [14th Five Year] plan that would set China in that direction”.

Swithin Lui, CAT’s lead China researcher, said the plan so far is “underwhelming”, and “shows little sign of a concerted switch away from a future coal lock-in”.

That assessment scares the hell out of me. I wonder what MR’s editors make of it.

■ The MR editors deplore the “continuing failure of the rich capitalist countries to reduce their [CO2] emissions in accordance with the UNFCCC [Paris] agreement” – and I agree with that.

But they seem terrified to acknowledge that a central driver of China’s coal-fired boom, and consequently its dangerously high level of greenhouse gas emissions, was its government’s decision to supply those rich countries with energy-intensive goods.

The problem was inherent in the decision by those “Communists” to make China the “workshop of the [capitalist] world”. The MR editors certainly stop short of endorsing those decisions, and they admit:

China is still at present contributing massively to planetary ecological destruction. We agree with Pirani that it would have been much better if the Chinese leadership had listened to the advice of Deng Yingtao in his A New Development Model in China (1991).

It would be worth discussing why Deng’s advice was ignored. This would mean challenging MR’s broader view of the Chinese Communist Party.

In the MR editors’ world, Chinese government policies are taking us towards an “ecological civilisation”. Over here in the real world, the Chinese state, along with the other states who made the Paris agreement, are failing, critically, to respond to the greatest danger of our times. Simon Pirani, 13 April 2021.

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

  1. Andreas Malm says:

    Very good post.

  2. Ivonne Yanez says:

    Hi. Thanks for this article. Nothing more distant of a sustainable future for China, if we consider that for its “renewalbility” is devastating the Ecuadorean forests in order to extract balsa wood for the millions of aerogenerators deployment. “clean” energy there, cleared forest in Ecuador…

  3. […] ecomodernism of the kind often published by Jacobin and anti-ecomodernist and campist ecosocialism, which Monthly Review promotes. But there’s also an ecosocialism from below that isn’t ecomodernist and whose anti-imperialism […]

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