Rhein on Energy and Climate

China is the biggest consumer of fossil energy, in particular coal. This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, as its economy is likely to grow by some two to 3% annually until the middle of the century.

As a consequence, its share of global CO2 emissions will most likely increase to 27% by 2030, ahead of USA and EU, the next big emitters, whose share in global emissions will keep falling,

The recipe for China, as for USA and EU, lies with energy efficiency, renewable energies and some nuclear power.

China wastes huge amounts of energy due to waste and low efficiency.

Energy waste is omnipresent in the heating/cooling of buildings, transport and power generation.

The simplest and most effective remedy to cope with energy waste and induce investments in energy efficiency would be a carbon tax, say € 10 per ton/CO2, as suggested by Chinese high officials and experts.

But the government seems wary because of hostile business reactions and a potential loss of international competitiveness. A carbon cap and trade system might be a suitable alternative, provided it is sufficiently tough. China has started its first regional pilot scheme.

In addition, China will have to follow US and EU ways of fixing energy efficiency standards for power generation, motor vehicles, appliances, machinery etc. That will save huge amounts of energy while making companies more competitive.

Renewable energy will need to be the second avenue to combat climate change.

China has succeeded in becoming the number one manufacturing country for wind and solar equipment. It aims at generating 15% of its energy needs from renewable sources, including hydro power, by 2020. Thanks to further cost reductions of renewable power China should be able to attain grid parity for wind and solar parks long before 2030, which should boost its wind and solar capacity and phase out new coal-power plants.

The Chinese government is also finds increasingly exposed to the challenge of air pollution. Chinese citizens, especially in the northern metropolitan areas, will not rest until the air quality will comply with WHO standards. The government will therefore have to continue closing highly polluting coal-fired power plants.

But focused on further improving living conditions it will refrain from spectacular action that might undermine economic growth.

In the past it has, however, proved its ability to act dramatically if it is convinced of the need to do so, as 30 years ago with the radical introduction of the one-child policy. It will need similar boldness to make “sustainability” the top priority for its future economic policy.

To that end, the government should invite a small group of economists and climate scientists to present long-term policy proposal for minimising climate change, from which China will suffer very substantially.

By the pure size of its economy China has an extraordinary impact on global climate change. It has therefore a vital interest in building a coalition of major emitting countries willing to move ahead courageously towards a zero carbon economy by 2100, which the world desperately needs to keep the rise of temperatures and sea level acceptable.

Eberhard Rhein, Brussels, 30/10/2013

Author :


  1. Another strong constraint on China building lots of new coal power stations is the lack of water in Northern China – one of the lowest amounts per person in the world, and Beijing has the same water availability as Saudi Arabia. So any thermal power generation that requires water for cooling, and also gas fracking and hydro power, are only achievable at a very high opportunity cost, thus favouring solar, wind and other generation with a low water footprint.

  2. ED
    point taken! Too many people overlook the water factor in their projcts or dreams.
    Eberhard Rhein

Comments are closed.