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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

China: Xi Jinping’s coal stokes the climate fire

January 15, 2021

China’s national and provincial post-Covid recovery packages will put three times as much cash into fossil fuel projects as into renewable energy.

China is “focusing its recovery on high-carbon energy and infrastructure, as it did after

One of China’s vanity projects: a puffer fish statue in Jiangsu province, which provoked social media outrage when it was unveiled

the 2008-09 global financial crisis”, says Carbon Brief, who analysed the spending plans. Dozens of new coal-fired power stations and climate-trashing coal-to-chemicals plants are among the key items.

The plans make a mockery of Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s claim to the United Nations in September to be aiming for “carbon neutrality before 2060”.

This chasm between words and actions makes Xi a “climate arsonist” still more dangerous than Donald Trump, Richard Smith, a US-based China researcher, writes in a recent article. Smith fears that Xi is “abandoning the transition to renewables”.

In a book published last year, China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse, Smith argues that China’s combination of bureaucratic dictatorship and capitalism has exacerbated Read the rest of this entry »


The hydrogen hoax

December 18, 2020

“Low carbon?” Its emissions are more than twice the UK economy’s

All of a sudden, hydrogen is (supposedly) a weapon to fight global warming. Governments are bigging it up in their “net zero” plans; oil companies say they are investing in it; union leaders say it will create jobs.

But no-one talks about the really existing hydrogen industry, that each year produces about 70 million tonnes of pure hydrogen, and another 45 million tonnes of hydrogen in other chemical products … and pours 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Yes, you read that right. 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year. 2% of total global total greenhouse gas emissions. Equal to about four-fifths of the emissions from aviation; more than twice the entire UK economy’s emissions. (See Endnote 1 about the numbers.)

Of that 115 million tonnes of hydrogen output, more than 99% is “grey” hydrogen – which means it is extracted from natural gas, coal or oil, and the carbon dioxide left over ends up in the air.

It’s fashionable to talk about “blue” hydrogen (made from fossil fuels, but with the carbon captured and stored, instead of being emitted) and “green” hydrogen (produced by electrolysis of water, using gigantic quantities of electricity). But these techniques are used only in a tiny handful of businesses. “Grey” hydrogen is completely dominant.

Companies and governments are promising to expand “blue” and “green” hydrogen production. They claim it will replace natural gas to heat people’s homes, and petrol for cars, and that it will cut carbon emissions.

But before expanding hydrogen production, what about decarbonising existing output?

That would be a big cut in the world’s carbon emissions. Nearly as big a cut as if aviation stopped. More than twice as big a cut as if the UK went to zero.

It would also mean a big shake-up of some of the world’s most polluting industries – oil refining and petrochemicals production – where the hydrogen is produced and used.

There is little mention of hydrogen’s gigantic carbon footprint in the glossy reports, press releases and “net zero” policies of the companies that produce it. But a report Read the rest of this entry »


Just transition on the North Sea: let’s talk about public ownership

December 15, 2020

The UK paid Royal Dutch Shell $116 million of tax rebates in 2019, while the company reported $92.1 billion revenues in the UK for the year.

Internationally, Shell made pre-tax profits of $25.5 billion in 2019, and paid $7.8 billion income tax and $5.9 billion royalties, in dozens of countries. But the UK, France, South Africa and Indonesia handed money back to Shell.

The figures were published last month by Shell. The UK tax rebate to Shell also shows up in the UK Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) report, published last week, along with a smaller £14.7 million tax rebate to BP.

At least the UK’s upstream oil industry as a whole paid some tax in 2019 (£1.43 billion) – unlike 2015 and 2016, when the Treasury paid out more in rebates than it collected in tax (as shown in this earlier EITI report).

Shell and BP’s rebates are part of the hugely generous system of tax breaks for North Sea producers, linked to the decommissioning of declining oil fields (and analysed last year in the Sea Change report by Platform, Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth).

These are subsidies to fossil fuel production, running into billions of pounds, devised by a Tory government that claims to be taking action on climate change.

And the problem runs deeper. North Sea oil production has since the 1980s been taxed with profit-based, rather than resource-based, methods, which gave the international companies access to the resources in the ground on unprecedentedly favourable terms.

The central role of these tax arrangements in the neoliberal “process of redefinition of the economic frontiers of the state” was analysed in this article by Juan Carlos Boué, Read the rest of this entry »


Carbon dioxide removal sucks. There are better ways to tackle global warming

November 13, 2020

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems, touted as techno-fixes for global warming, usually put more greenhouse gases into the air than they take out, a study published last month has confirmed.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which grabs carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by coal- or gas-fired power stations, and then uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), emits between 1.4 and 4.7 tonnes of the gas for each tonne removed, the article shows.

Direct air capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 from the atmosphere, emits 1.4-3.5 tonnes for

Biological carbon removal: a forest in Turkey. Photo: Fagus/ wikimedia

each tonne it recovers, mostly from fossil fuels used to power the handful of existing projects.

If DAC was instead powered by renewable electricity – as its supporters claim it should be – it would wolf down other natural resources.

And things get worse at large scale.

To capture 1 gigatonne of CO2 (1 GtCO2, just one-fortieth of current global CO2 emissions) would need nearly twice the amount of wind and solar electricity now produced globally. The equipment would need a land area bigger than the island of Sri Lanka and a vast network of pipelines and underground storage facilities. (See endnote 1.)

Claims made that CCS could be “green” – by generating the energy from biofuels, and/or storing the carbon instead of using it for oil production – do not stand up to scrutiny either, the article shows.

The paper – “Assessing Carbon Capture: public policy, science and societal need”, by Read the rest of this entry »


North Sea workers ready to switch to renewables, survey shows

September 29, 2020

Most UK oil workers would consider switching to another industry – and, if given the option to retrain, more than half would choose to work on renewable energy, a survey published today shows.

The survey blasts a hole in the argument by trade union leaders that every last drop of oil must be produced, supposedly to preserve jobs. Actually, workers are

Let’s go! Wind turbines, with an electricity sub-station, in the North Sea (German sector). Photo: SteKrueBe / Creative Commons

ready to move away from fossil fuel production – as long as they can work and their families don’t suffer.

The 1383 offshore workers who responded to the survey crave job security, above all. Nearly half of them had been laid off or furloughed since oil prices crashed in March.

Many complained about precarious employment and the contract labour now rife on the North Sea.

The survey, Offshore: oil and gas workers’ views on industry conditions and the energy transition, was put together by Platform London, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace.

The survey’s authors seem to be the first people who have actually asked workers what they think.

The Scottish government has a comfortably-funded Just Transition Commission, including trade union chiefs, that recently ran a consultation on its interim report.

But it was campaign groups, working with activists on the ground, who bothered to talk to offshore workers.

The survey, distributed via social media and targeted advertising, garnered 1546 responses. The results excluded replies by 163 people who work in midstream or Read the rest of this entry »


Leeds trades unionists: zero-carbon homes can help tackle climate change

September 2, 2020

Leeds Trades Union Council has issued a call for large-scale investment to insulate homes and install electric heat pumps, to cut carbon emissions and help tackle global warming.

Such a drive to retrofit and electrify homes would be an alternative to a multi-billion-pound scheme, supported by oil and gas companies, to turn the gas network over to hydrogen.

That scheme, Northern Gas Networks’ H21 project, could tie up billions of pounds of

Thermal imaging shows heat escaping from a house without insulation (right). From the Open Eco Homes web site

government money in risky carbon capture and storage technology, which is not proven to work at the scale required – but would help to prolong the oil and gas industry’s life by decades.

This is a test for social and labour movements all over the UK.

The demand for retrofitting and electrification should be taken up, and fossil-fuel-linked technofixes rejected. Otherwise, talk of “climate and ecological emergency” is empty words.

“Our most important and urgent action is to halt the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere”, says a draft document that the Leeds TUC published last week. “This means radical changes to the way we use energy for work, travel and to heat our homes.”

In setting out a plan for Leeds, the TUC there hopes to “offer a model that will be taken up by other towns, cities and regions”, where it can form the basis for collaboration between local authorities, and a focus for trade unions and community campaigners.

The case for super-insulation and heat pumps

“There can be no realistic pathway to zero carbon which relies solely on changes in the way we produce energy”, says the TUC document. “Continuing to extract and burn carbon- Read the rest of this entry »


China’s coal-fuelled boom: the man who cried “stop”

April 30, 2020

Download this article (and the linked one) as a PDF

“We can no longer act on nature with impunity.” The “classic” model of economic development “poses a threat to humanity’s very existence”. China needs a new development model, based on renewable resources used effectively and sustainably, that will be built on the old model’s ruins.

Deng Yingtao, a high-profile Chinese economist, made this call to action thirty years ago in his book A New Development Model and China’s Future.[1] Its message was ignored by the political leaders it was addressed to. In this review article, I will consider why.

In the 1990s, the Chinese Communist party leadership prioritised expansion of export-focused manufacturing industry. The industrial boom really took off in the 2000s, fuelled by mountains of coal – the classic unsustainable resource.

In every year since 2011, China has consumed more coal than the rest of the world put together;

Steelmaking is one of China’s coal-hungry industries

more coal than the entire world used annually in the early 1980s; and more than twice what all the rich countries together used annually in the mid 1960s, during their own coal-fired boom.[2]

The primary beneficiaries of this economic model are not China’s 1.3 billion people. The big fuel users are in China’s giant east-coast manufacturing belt – which produces, in the first place, energy-intensive goods for export to rich countries: steel bars, cement, chemical products, agricultural fertilisers and electronics products. Household fuel consumption remains extremely low.

This level of fossil fuel use can not go on, not in China and not anywhere else, without courting the most horrendous dangers brought about by global warming.

Deng Yingtao made a compelling argument against going down this road, BEFORE the decisions were made.

In the Introduction to his book, he pointed to the yawning gap between rich and poor countries; the multinational companies’ rising power; and the damage done to the global south by capitalist boom-and-bust.

The “classic” development model had led to “a world economy dominated by the developed West Read the rest of this entry »


They shot to kill: eight years on from massacre of Kazakhstan’s striking oil workers

January 13, 2020

Eight years after the infamous massacre of striking oil workers and their supporters at Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, human rights defenders in the oil-rich republic are still seeking answers. How many victims were there, on top of the 16 dead and nearly 100 wounded acknowledged by the authorities? Who gave the order to open fire? What was the role of agents provocateurs? And Kazakhstan’s beleaguered trade union movement continues to count the cost of the killings – which brought to an end an eight-month strike, the longest and largest in the country’s history, and heralded a crackdown on all forms of opposition.

Internationally – while Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, advised the Kazakh government on how to spin its crime before international audiences – oil workers and others voiced solidarity with the 2011 strike in pickets and protests. In that same spirit of solidarity, People & Nature publishes this interview with GALYM AGELEUOV, a human rights defender who worked with labour movement activists before, during and after the 2011 strike, republished with thanks from Current Time TV. (Original here.)

On 16 December 2011, eight years ago, police opened fire on unarmed citizens of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan. The victims included oil workers who were on strike,

Defendants at the trial of Zhanaozen residents for “disorder”

and innocent passers-by. The authorities of Mangistau region said the police had begun shooting “in self defence” – until video recordings appeared on the internet, showing how people ran from armed, uniformed men, who were shooting to kill.

According to official data, 16 people died and about a hundred were injured. Zhanaozen residents and human rights defenders said that the number of victims may have been several times greater. But Read the rest of this entry »


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