Article published in latest edition of Socialism Today

Earlier this year the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics announced that coal consumption in the country fell for the second year running. This was matched by a fall in carbon dioxide emissions, which are the result of burning fossil fuel like coal, which is the biggest culprit in causing global warming. China’s renewable energy capacity was also reported to have grown in 2015, by 34% and 74% in wind and solar respectively. After the publication of this information, there was much press comment that China is now going green. These do appear to be impressive numbers, and if China really is going green, this would have an impact on global warming, since it is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses. So what is the real situation?

A recent paper, co-authored by Professor Valerie Karpus of MIT in the journal Nature Energy, also painted an optimistic picture. China is apparently on track to generate more than a quarter of its electricity from wind power by 2030, and is now also the world’s wind energy leader, with installed capacity of 145 GW, more than Europe and the USA. The country is on course to ‘far surpass’ its commitments at the (abortive) Paris climate summit in 2015, according to Xie Zhenhua, China’s chief negotiator in Paris. Ranping Song of the World Resources Institute in Washington claims that this is ‘a perfect way’ for an emerging economy to try to shift the way it develops.

Statistics coming out of China need to be treated with great caution, since they are manipulated by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bureaucrats at many levels for their own ends. Nevertheless, it seems that there has been rapid growth in renewable energy capacity and CO2 output has probably fallen slightly. These data though need to be put in a long-term context, nationally and internationally, before any conclusions can be drawn about China’s green credentials and the prospects for tackling global warming.

Shortly after the data mentioned above came out from the National Bureau of Statistics, Greenpeace published a report on the coal industry in China. It stated that in 2015 China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and local Environmental Protection Bureaus issued permits for 210 coal-fired power stations, four per week. The capacity of these plants alone will exceed that of the entire currently installed renewables. Also, construction began on between 66 and 73 coal-fired plants in 2015, a dramatic increase on previous years. The 210 planned new coal facilities would, over a 24-year lifespan, emit 1.9 times China’s current greenhouse gas emissions. The toxic particulate emissions from the projects would be larger than from all the cars in Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing and Shanghai, causing 220,000 extra deaths over the same time.

The Greenpeace report points out that the construction of new coal plants is not necessary, since there is already overcapacity in the sector and coal-fired electricity output has not increased since 2011. The report expects that the new coal stations will be mothballed and demand met increasingly from the installed renewable capacity. They speculate that the central government will want to meet international commitments on capping greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and will therefore not use polluting energy capacity needlessly. But this may not necessarily be the case for a number of reasons. Local capitalists and CCP bureaucrats can ignore directives from the centre if they see it as in their own interests, particularly when there are long-standing entrenched clans, such as those associated with the coal industry.

To support their case that renewables will be preferred over coal by the government, Greenpeace, as well as Professor Karpus at MIT, claim that the ‘marginal’ cost of renewables is presently lower than that for coal, and so (capitalist) economic logic, ie profit, should therefore favour the former. However, marginal energy costs fluctuate wildly and rapidly depending on the state of the national and international economy, changes in technology, and other factors, so predicting future economic events based on present marginal costs is highly uncertain. This is particularly true in the mayhem of development in China, where the capitalist ‘rules of the game’ are refracted through a Stalinist prism. As mentioned above, bureaucrats and powerful pressure groups often ignore ‘market logic’ or directives from the centre if it suits them.

The Chinese government pursued a policy of break-neck growth of all energy sectors while the economic boom continued, due to an energy shortage and to the strategic wish to build dominant international industries in wind and solar. It succeeded in the latter case, and is rapidly making inroads into the world wind energy market. The growth of the renewable sector was driven primarily by these factors, not a concern for the environment. In the future, the priorities of state policy will remain the self-interest of the bureaucracy and of the Chinese capitalists, not global warming. In these circumstances, there is no reason to think that the market choices, such as they are, made by the ruling elites or capitalists at all levels of society will result in a favourable environmental outcome.

Coal still accounts for 75% of the country’s energy consumption and although this possibly may decline over a period of time due to the growth of the renewable sector, the fall is very unlikely to be on a sufficient scale or fast enough to address the danger of global warming. This would be the case even if the Chinese government meets its commitments on climate change or the claim by their chief negotiator in Paris, that China is on course to ‘far surpass’ its commitments, is true.

In Paris China said it would cap its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, per unit of GDP. If this, very improbably, happened this year rather than in 2030, China would still be emitting approximately 12bn tonnes of CO2 per year, about a third of the world total. There is also no commitment to reduce it going forward, since the government pledge is to cap emissions per unit of GDP, meaning that emissions will continue to grow as the economy does. The resulting level of output would make it impossible to meet scientifically determined targets for keeping global warming to less than a 2C increase above pre-industrial levels, beyond which temperature rises could become uncontrollable.

In the context of the latest data on warming, the prospect of emissions from China of ‘only’ 12bn tonnes per year, never mind a more realistic much higher figure, becomes even more alarming. Statistics for the past three years on a world scale will probably indicate that temperatures have risen by 1.5C, an increase from below 1C in less than five years. The rate of melting of Arctic ice and the permafrost has accelerated far beyond the fears of climate scientists. It is too soon to say that this trend will continue, but the alarm bells are ringing. We could be witnessing the arrival of a predicted tipping point, where the melting of the permafrost is releasing large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that is vastly more dangerous than CO2.

Immediate and decisive action is needed now to meet this emergency, but there is no sign that the rulers in China or elsewhere are intending to do anything significant. It has never been more important or urgent to take control out of the hands of the profit-driven rulers of the capitalist world and to replace them with a rational, democratically controlled socialist system.

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