Will China now trump the USA in Paris Climate leadership?

Publish date: June 1, 2017

With Trump set to abandon the Paris climate deal, the world looks to the East for a new lead in the fight against climate change. China has pursued increasingly ambitious greenhouse gas reduction policies, some with more success than others. A new addition to the greenhouse gas reduction strategies line-up, aimed at levelling out China’s emissions by 2030, is carbon capture and storage (CCS).

China to step up

In a reaction to the expected withdrawal of president Donald Trump from the Paris climate action agreement, China has reaffirmed its political commitment to follow through with the plan. Along with the European Union and India, China is supposed to take the reins. The country is renowned for its rapid growth in adding renewable energy generation capacity, but has been criticised for putting its economy first and climate change mitigation second. Coal-fired plants remain the biggest hurdle in driving the country’s emissions down.  

The world’s largest climate polluter has undoubtedly had a hard time standing its ground during climate change talks in the last decades. Polluting coal power plants remain the major source of both energy and emissions in China. With the government focusing solely on growth for the past decades, the relentless increase in energy demand has slowed only during the past few years as the economic growth has become less energy intensive.

s11_Top_FF_emitters_abs Chinese CO2 emissions amount to more than those of the EU28 and the USA combined, with massive year on year emissions growth for generation. Credit: Cicero 2017

If the world’s largest emitter is to keep up with the 2°C target set in Paris, it needs to shut down at least a couple of coal plants per week, let alone the huge industrial emissions from steel, cement and chemicals among others. Cleaning up their act is easier said than done.

A silver lining to dirty industry?

Tackling such vast emissions from both power and industry in time to achieve 2oC will require a range of technologies, not least capturing and storing CO2 before it enters the atmosphere.  Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has become a major opportunity for China to achieve significant emissions reductions. China has leapfrogged the world on CCS development; currently there are 16 large scale projects around the world in varying phases of evaluation, half of which are located in China. China is developing CCS for both industries and power generation.

With many large-scale factories emitting huge volumes of nearly pure CO2 streams as by-products, capturing these emissions will be a low cost first step. In addition to the country being riddled with CO2 sources, there is an entire network of potential CO2 storage sites, making it a fertile ground for the development of CO2 networks.

co2 storage network china China’s many coal-fired power plants and their proximity to suitable CO2 storage areas Credit: IEA GHG 2016

The scale of  is also an advantage – the bigger the networks of sources and storage sites, the better their business case. As more facilities will connect to the CO2 transport and storage grid, they will share the costs for infrastructure and hence lower their overall expenses.

The most recent glimmer of hope for large-scale CCS deployment in the far East is the Yanchang Integrated Carbon Capture and Storage Project located in the country’s coal heartland, the Shaanxi province. With an annual capacity to capture 360,000 metric tonnes of CO2, it will gradually chip away at the country’s vast yearly emissions. Despite the CO2 being used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), it is primarily aimed at opening the door for large scale deep cuts of CO2 emissions in the region. EOR might be of limited scope when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it improves the balance sheets of first projects and kick-starts the deployment of CO2 transport and storage for follow on CCS projects.

Overall, the future of the grey East does seem to be greening. But as always, there’s a catch.

From one fossil to another

The coal industry is looking for more than one way to stay afloat.

Transforming coal to liquid and gaseous fossil fuels, one of the most CO2 intensive processes in the world, is a growing sector in China. One of these projects, running since December 2016, is claimed to involve an even bigger coal-to-fuel producing plant than the world’s largest point source emitter of CO2 located in South Africa. Located in a region abundant with coal, the Ningxia Hui plant produces 4 million tonnes of oil products per year from 20 million tonnes of coal. As if the environmental damage wasn’t enough, producing these fuels could cause vast amounts of water to be drained from the already dried up regions of China. Capturing and storing the vast CO2 emissions from these coal to liquid plants, short of shutting them, would be the only option to curb their massive climate impact.

With growing targets for producing gas and fuels out of their coal, China is harming simultaneously setting its self on an extreme carbon intensity pathway while claiming climate leadership.

If the emissions of the world’s largest polluter aren’t carefully managed, the policy of turning one high carbon fossil into another could be the end of the 2°C target set in Paris. The Chinese government has vowed to make the fight against climate change a priority, but only time will tell whether they will keep their word.

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