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A Return to Paris

Jan 5, 2021

In September, The New York Times reported that President Xi Jinping sent a pointed message to the U.S. that China was tightening its climate targets to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.

Todd Stern, the chief U.S. negotiator of the 2015 Paris Agreement, called the statement, “big and important news.”

However, the Times was less enthusiastic, noting “President Xi’s remarks were less than precise on actions China would take to ratchet up its climate policies.”

While President Xi stated China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, the Paris Agreement was based upon the scientific consensus that the world must reach carbon neutrality no later than 2050 in order to have a reasonable chance of averting the worst climate disasters.

The Paris Climate Agreement is a voluntary agreement among 197 countries to limit fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change. The Agreement’s goal is to hold the rise in temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement one year after assuming office. However, President-elect Joe Biden has committed to rejoining the Agreement on his first day as President and leading an effort for every country to ramp up their domestic climate targets, as well as spending $2 trillion to slash CO2 emissions.

Under the Paris Agreement, each country voluntarily pledged to a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to address GHG emissions. President Obama’s administration pledged a 26%-28% reduction in GHG emissions by 2025. China made a less definitive commitment, pledging to stop increasing CO2 emissions by 2030 or sooner, if possible.

The Chinese pledge is obviously more subjective and less measurable than the U.S. pledge. For example, China could increase its CO2 emissions very dramatically through 2029, level off, and still be compliant with its commitment. The U.S. is tied to a very specific level.

China is the largest consumer of primary energy in the world and relies on coal generation for 58% of its primary energy needs. China also leads the world with 27% of the world’s GHG emissions. By comparison, the U.S. is responsible for 13% of global GHG emissions (6.7 billion tonnes of the 2018 world total of 51.8 billion tonnes).

U.S. coal-fired generation is often blamed for most of the problems with GHG emissions and climate change. Environmental efforts under the Bush and Obama administrations have forced the closure of many of the U.S.’s coal-fired generation plants. Currently, the U.S. has about 224 GWs of coal-fired electric generation out of its total generating capacity of 1,100 GWs. The U.S. coal fleet is the third largest sector in the U.S. with CO2 emissions at 19%. Transportation is first at 46% and natural gas is second at 33%.

In comparison, China currently has over 1,000 GWs of coal-fired electric generation and has 206 GWs under construction and pre-construction development – equivalent to about three new coal units per month, each month, through 2025. The China coal fleet is four times as large as the U.S. coal fleet and has almost as much coal-fired generation under construction or development as the U.S. It is apparent China has more interest in dramatically increasing its coal-fired generation fleet and supply of cheap electricity than truly contributing to any global reduction in GHG emissions.

The world press has recognized (and criticized) China’s efforts to build coal-fired generation despite its climate commitments:

“Surging Coal Use in China Threatens Global CO2 Goals” –  E&E News, June 9, 2020

“China Is Still Building an Insane Number of Coal Plants – While The Rest of the World Turns Away From Fossil Fuels, China Is Investing Big in Coal-Powered Electricity” – Wired, November 27, 2019

“China Must Cancel New Coal Plants to Achieve Climate Goals: Study” – Reuters, January 6, 2020

“China’s Appetite for Coal Power Returns Despite Climate Change Pledge – Capacity Rose 42.9 GWs in 18 Months, Far Out-Pacing Global Efforts to Cut Use of fossil Fuels” – The Guardian, November 2019

“Years After Freezing New Projects, China Is Back to Building Coal Power Plants” – Washington Post, November 20, 2019

With the election now decided, Mr. Biden will certainly make good on his pledge to rejoin the Agreement. With the life of a normal coal plant usually extending at least 40 years, China will add so much coal-fired generation between now and 2025 that its pledge will be ineffective in achieving any GHG emission goals. It appears we will return to the Paris Agreement to have our pockets again picked like Mr. Stern’s were in 2015. We will watch as China continues to build cheap electric generation, erode our economy and emit even more CO2. Some things never change.

I hope you have a good month.

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