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Black cloud over China's green growth

Jonathan Watts

China making huge strides in using green energy but coal consumption continues to increase.

China tripled its solar energy generating capacity last year and notched up major increases in wind and hydropower, government figures indicated recently.

But officials are still struggling to cap the growth in coal burning, which is the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world.

The latest evidence of China’s promotion of renewable energy has been welcomed by climate activists but they warn that the benefits are being wiped out by the surge in coal consumption. After burning an extra 95-million tonnes last year China will soon account for half the coal burnt on the planet.

At a key policy-making meeting in Beijing recently Liu Tienan, the director of the National Energy Administration, called for energy use to be kept below 4.1-billion tonnes of coal equivalent per year until 2015. If the proposal is accepted this will be the first time China has set such a ceiling. Until now Beijing has set goals only for energy and carbon intensity, which are related to economic growth and so fluctuate according to gross domestic product (GDP) figures.

But the proposed figure remains the subject of fierce discussion as it was based on an assumption that China’s economy will grow at 7.5% per annum until 2015, by which time the government is supposed to bring down energy intensity (units of energy per unit of GDP) by 16%.

However, provincial governments are projecting a combined economic growth rate of more than 9%, which means they will face a fuel shortfall unless the energy targets are raised or they fail to reach their goals.

Negotiations are held behind closed doors and are likely to last several more months but it is believed that the provinces are arguing for a higher target of between 4.25-billion and five-billion tonnes.

Besides being far from the reality of a slowing economy (the forecast for the first six months of this year is for no more than 7.5% growth), this prospect horrifies environmentalists. “If it goes up to five-billion tonnes, it would be a disaster; China would effectively be promoting high-energy, high-carbon growth,” said Li Yan of Greenpeace.

If accepted, an energy cap would become one of the most important industrial targets in the world because it would largely determine how large a mountain of coal China would burn and, as a result, how much carbon dioxide it would emit.

Depending on how it was structured, such a target could also help or hinder the development of the renewable energy industry.

Yang Fuqiang of the non-governmental organisation National Resources Defence Council, said Chinese energy consumption rose almost threefold from 2 000 to reach 3.2-billion tonnes of coal equivalent in 2010. On present trends it would rise to almost five-billion tonnes by 2020. “China uses too much coal.”

Yang wants the government to change its proposed energy cap into a coal cap, which would allow provincial authorities to grow faster if they used more renewable energy or gas.—

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