China’s Renewable Push Depressing, In Context

At first blush, it looked like the Bloomberg New Energy Finance report on China’s energy future that came out last week was going to provide hope that the world’s efforts to turn back the tide of rising carbon dioxide levels won’t be for naught. “China’s Power Sector Heads Toward a Cleaner Future” BNEF said in a press release.

But no.

Image via Bobak/Wikimedia Commons

Image via Bobak/Wikimedia Commons

It’s true that new renewables, large hydro and gas-based generation will drive down coal’s share of power generation capacity under the central among four scenarios analyzed, from 67 percent in 2012 to 44 percent by 2020. But BNEF still sees the country adding on average 38 gigawatts of coal capacity per year until 2022 (“equal to three large coal plants every month”), then slowing down a bit to 10 GW/year until 2030.

“Carbon emissions and local environmental problems resulting from coal, such as poor air quality will likely continue to worsen in the next 10-15 years despite the shift towards cleaner energy sources,” BNEF says of the “New Normal” scenario.

That’s right – carbon emissions in China would continue to climb for another fourteen years under this scenario.

The problem is that renewables aren’t replacing fossil fuels in China, and won’t be for a long time. Even under the super-optimistic “Barrier Busting with Carbon Scenario” China, already the world’s biggest carbon emitter, will continue to see emissions grow until 2023.

We’ve talked about this before – about how developing countries who were mired deep in poverty during the 20th century while the U.S. and the West grew – gobbling and slurping up massive amounts of fossil fuels and belching GHGs in the process – are now having their turn.

As Jun Ying, country manager and head of research for China at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, put it: “China has started to change course towards a cleaner future. But despite significant progress in renewable energy deployment, coal looks set to remain dominant to 2030. More support for renewable energy, natural gas and energy efficiency will be needed if China wants to reduce its reliance on coal more quickly.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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