China Drives Dramatic Rise In Global Emissions In 2021

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A few weeks back I wrote a story that proposed that we all quit talking about so-called “peak oil” demand since, according to various sources, the world has not yet even managed to achieve “peak coal” demand. If the world is to really eliminate or at least reduce the highest sources of carbon emissions, after all, it will need to start at the top - which coal surely is - and work its way down. More data points have emerged in the last few weeks to support this thesis.

An August 25 story in the Axios Generate newsletter cites a new report from Ember, titled “Building Back Badly: Global Power Sector Emissions Soar.” Ember, an environmentalist think-tank based in London, finds that global carbon emissions have risen to new highs during 2021 as national economies recover from the COVID pandemic. The study finds that global carbon emissions for June, 2021, were 7% higher than levels seen during June, 2019.

As reported by Axios, two additional key findings in the report are:

  • The data shows that while 57% of the growth in electricity demand came from wind and solar power, a large fraction — 43% — has been met by firing up carbon-intensive coal power plants, especially in China, Bangladesh, Mongolia and Vietnam.
  • No single country out of the 63 nations analysts examined has achieved a "green recovery" for the electricity sector, which features higher electricity demand and lower emissions.

In its report synopsis, Ember places special urgency on the need for China to expedite its own energy transition away from coal towards cleaner sources:

  • China’s electricity demand rose by 14% from H1-2019 to H1-2021 and is approaching EU per capita levels. Over two-thirds (68%) was met by coal power and the rest by wind and solar (29%). China was responsible for 90% of the world’s increase in electricity demand and 43% of the world’s increase in wind and solar during this period. It added more coal power (+337 TWh) than the EU’s total coal generation in H1-2021. As a result, China’s share of global coal generation rose from 50% in 2019 to 53% in H1-2021.

These are compelling findings, but the question must be asked, what incentive does China have to make such moves? After all, under the Paris Climate Accord, China’s commitment related to carbon emissions is that they reach their peak levels “no later than 2030.” The world’s reality is that it cannot achieve “peak coal” until China chooses to start reducing its use of that dense energy source for power generation.

But the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) right now is mainly focused on growing its economy to levels that will ultimately allow it to surpass the United States economy as the world’s largest by that year. Energy growth drives economic growth, and the surest way for the CCP to achieve that overarching goal will be through the use of the cheapest and most energy-dense means available. In power generation, that energy source happens to be coal; in transportation, it is gasoline or diesel.

Just as no one should have expected the OPEC+ member countries to damage their own economies to accede to President Joe Biden’s demand that they put more oil onto the global market, no one in the Western world should expect China - or India, which is also dramatically increasing its use of fossil fuels - to agree to slow its own economic growth in order to meet demands that it try to replace energy-dense coal and oil with renewable sources that cannot come close to matching the ability of fossil fuels to power a growing economy. From a national perspective - which is the focus of the CCP - it makes no sense.

None of this is consistent with the findings of the recent report from the International Energy Agency that power sector emissions would need to decline by 57% by 2030 in order to meet a “net-zero by 2050” goal. But that same report projects that demand for energy will grow by 50% during that same period of time, a massive dichotomy that cannot physically be resolved with renewables. China understands this reality, and thus keeps pushing ahead with the building of new coal plants, not just in its own country, but financing the building of hundreds more abroad.

As a result, the world has indeed yet to achieve peak coal, and no one should expect that goal to be met until 2030 at the earliest.

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