Enough is Enough: The End of the Endless Coal
I have an aunt who, whenever she poured anything for you, would say, “Say when!” And of course, we never did. We don’t say “when” because there’s something about the possibility of more. More juice, more soup, more anything. More is better.
Things in real life nowadays never come that easy as free drinks offered by my aunt. Particularly when you have almost 7 billion children and zillions of other creatures relying on you, our mother nature seems already exhausted from feeding us all with her endless love and selfless giving.
Such exhaustion in China couldn’t be more apparent and urgent, with daunting air pollution constantly haunting us every few months and increasingly touching greater regions. Reasons are also clear, that the whole country is choked by excessive emissions from over consumption of fossil fuels, with coal in particular now and increasingly also with oil and gas.
The Coal Abuse
When talking about China’s energy endowment, people tend to use “rich in coal, short in oil and gas” as a quick glimpse. Hence, coal becomes the most accessible and reliable energy resource that shapes China’s energy structure until now. Such logic is further mainstreamed as “coal is indispensable” in China’s energy system. That, and with China’s mandate on economic development, coal gets the “free pass” to grow unbridled.
It took China 40 years to reach its first milestone of using 1 billion tons of coal per year. It took only 14 years for China to add another 1 billion tons of use, bringing the number to 2 billion tons Just in the past four years, China added another 1 billion tons of coal production, making its total production around 3.7 billion in 2013. Up until recently, coal and its related industries were happily enjoying what they called the “Golden Decade”. Even right now, over half of the world’s coal is still burned in China. It seems that there is no such thing as “limits to growth”, as seriously warned by “Club of Rome.”
Even for the UK in 1952, when hazardous smog hit London and coal witnessed its peak thereafter, average coal use was about 930 tons per square kilometers. However, right now in China’s heavily polluted key economic regions, such intensity is over 2000 tons of coal consumption per square kilometer. Although some of China’s coal-fired power generation is of world-leading efficiency, the emission standards in China seldom improve adequately to ensure cutting-edge technology is mainstreamed fast, or at least far less ambitious than what a sound environment would require.
Besides, China still has quite some small-scale and backward capacity that is economically competitive in their life circle, but their environmental implication is enormous. Let alone the fact that a large chunk of the coal is still directly and inefficiently burned as an energy source at end use points by industries and households. Burning other forms of fossil fuels, particularly oil and gas, further complicates the air pollution situation in China by adding additional hazardous pollutants and enabling their chemical interactions with harmful impact.
The Hard Limits
Unfortunately, we entered into an age of consequences, by exceeding the hard limits of nature. As Frederick Engels warned us: “For each of our human victories over nature, nature takes its revenge on us.”
Scientific evidence is overwhelming that human pressure on the planet has reached a point that poses major risks for future welfare and prosperity. In China, the world’s largest population and fast economic growth looms further over the vision of humans and nature in harmony. Since the early 1970s, China’s demand on renewable resources has exceeded its ability to regenerate those resources within its own borders. China’s per capita Ecological Footprint is 2.5 times its per capita bio-capacity, meaning that China is in huge bio-capacity deficit.
For China, the patterns of production, consumption and development that we choose today will deeply influence the future of the country and the wider world. However, even before the international community poses serious concerns about China’s GHG emission growth that is adding up the risks of run-away climate change, China is already suffering from its unbridled fossil fuel consumption and rampant air pollution.
Pictures of Chinese cities hidden behind thick curtains of dangerous air pollution were among the most memorable global images of 2013. Red alert pollution days, cancelled airline flights, and school closures brought China’s environmental crisis into sharp relief, as city residents searched for sold-out air purifiers and face masks. Latest research also tries to establish the link between air pollution and life expectancy, that people in northern China to live an average of five and a half years shorter than their southern counterparts, simply due to winter heating from coal burning in northern China. Isn’t the cost of crossing biological limits huge enough?
The End of the Endless King Coal
Currently, the unsustainable energy system raises huge concerns among political elites in China, that: “If pollution control and ecosystem conservation fails, China runs the risks of the collapse of the Party and the fall of the state.”
As a start to revert the road ahead, the concept of “Ecological Civilization” is mainstreamed as a key pillar of the “Chinese Dream,” or more concretely “economic prosperity and national renewal” towards mid-century. This is necessary political momentum to reshape China into a developed society that respects and conserves nature, while promoting environmentally friendly development.
We have a historic opportunity to make such change a reality, and it is the most significant and necessary in China. However, the visionary concept of “Ecological Civilization” needs to be fleshed out. Ending the endless coal consumption should be a very crucial first step, so that we share an opportunity of ecological balance and clean, renewable energy is better positioned to grow.
In order to achieve that, bold actions must be taken by all to make the changes necessary to avoid a future no one wants. For the first time in China, sub-national governments are setting ambitious targets to curb their coal consumption, as a response to rampant air pollution. This should be applauded, and be further encouraged to be adopted by more local governments. And more importantly, this should accelerate China’s adoption of an environmentally effective national coal cap, instead of hedging such challenge towards the coal industry by granting other risky loopholes such as the coal chemical industry or more specifically coal gasification.
A Time to Say When
As purportedly the most advanced intelligent species, we know that there is something to say about a glass half full, about knowing when to say when. If not, either we drink up the juice of tomorrow when we still want to taste the flavor, or our sweet-soaked teeth will teach us the lesson by an all-night-long toothache.
Changing the course of history often involves being in the right place at the right time. Ancient Chinese wisdom further strengthens the critical importance of the right people, to facilitate the right change. For the halt of unlimited coal consumption in China, all key elements are ready. Political courage needs to step in now!