Are carbon emissions rising again?

Yes in 2017, but I think it’s a Chinese blip.

Yes, according to the top-ranked people at the Tyndall Centre, as reported in a string of journal reports, the key letter here. They predict global carbon emissions will rise 2.0% in 2017, after three years on a plateau. They do not offer a prediction for 2018, but are not optimistic.

(Chart from here.)

Is there any reason to change the plateau story? Is the rise a blip or a sign that emissions growth has resumed? For my money, a blip. Let’s look at the detail.

First, it’s a prediction made after three quarters, with the most recent data presumably not being very reliable. The range of the estimate is therefore very wide: 0.8%−3.0%. That’s huge for the current year.

Structurally, the plateau has been a precarious balance between a small but definite fall in coal and a small but definite rise in oil and gas. They updated the BP chart I already posted here.

Regionally, the steady declines in the EU and the USA have been offset by steady growth in the “rest of the world” plus India but minus China. India’s emissions growth slowed dramatically, from a decadal average of 6% pa to only 2%. China is the swing voter that determines the overall direction of change.

In the first half of 2017, coal bounced back in China.

China’s CO2 emissions were stable in 2016 but are projected to rise 3.5% to 10.5 Gt CO2 this year (range 10.2–10.7 Gt CO2); coal, oil, and natural gas use are expected to increase ~3.0%, 5.0%, and 12%, respectively.

What has been going on in coal in China this year? It’s swung about from month to month. Up to 10%; but then the same thing happens in the USA. Geology, weather and accidents have their say, as well as the guesses of coal bosses. Note Tyndall’s hedge: the lower end of the wide range for emissions is close to zero growth.


(Source Bloomberg)
The cuts in coal production at the end of 2016, perhaps to meet winter air pollution targets, were clearly not sustainable. Apart from that, you can’t see a clear rising trend. Production was apparently cut again in the autumn after a series of mine disasters, which the leadership did not want repeated during the 19th Party Congress in October.

My speculation in this. The quinquennial Party Congress absorbed Xi Jinping’s full attention for much of the year: he spent his time on politics not policy, creating temporary space for the coal lobby to cash in while the going was good. In addition to the usual personnel changes to entrench supporters and marginalize adversaries, Xi secured the inclusion of his Thought in the Party Constitution under his own name, an honour awarded to no other Chinese leader since Mao and (posthumously) Deng. His position is now unchallengeable. The downside of such power is that unlike Trump, Xi has nobody else to blame when things go wrong. So what does he want to do? Does he want to go down in history as the Green Emperor?

It’s not at all clear, but it is possible. A nugget from Xi’s Castro-length speech:

Xi declared that the “principal contradiction” facing China’s socialist society has evolved. In the past, the contradiction was between “the ever-growing material and cultural needs of the people and backward social production.” Now, it is between “unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life,” Xi said.

Stripped of the Hegelian ormolu, this actually makes a lot of sense. It’s seen as a key point: his change has been added to the Party Constitution (pdf, page 3).

In addition, this document, on top of six mentions of the environment, has this interesting change, surely at his instigation (page 4, my emphasis):

The basic line of the Communist Party of China in the primary stage of socialism is to lead all the people of China together in a self-reliant and pioneering effort, making economic development the central task, upholding the Four Cardinal Principles, and remaining committed to reform and opening up, so as to see China becomes a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.

Other leaders please copy.

You don’t need to rely on Kremlinology to think that Xi will pursue the energy transition out of political self-interest: air pollution is a threat to the Party’s rule, and his. He now has no reason to go slow and far less need to make compromises with coal barons and their friends in provincial governments. Their cities will be beautiful, or else. China installed 64 GW of renewable energy capacity in 2016 (IRENA), and it’s not slowing down.

I predict that coal will resume its decline in 2018, as the emperor wills, and that the world will stay on its emissions plateau.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

6 thoughts on “Are carbon emissions rising again?”

  1. Read somewhere that drought in China reduced their hefty hydro share, which had to be supplemented with coal – explaining their spike.

  2. There's people near me fighting against a new natural gas pipeline. Natural gas has been responsible for most of the carbon reduction in the US the past few years.

    1. The key word here in "new". Coal is dying. There is not much to de done about oil for the next decade beyond supporting electric vehicles. Gas is the next battle: CCGC plants are no cheaper than wind and solar today for generating electricity, and it's feasible – possibly at some premium – to replace gas heating with heat pumps. In the longer run, fossil gas can be replaced by hydrogen or methane made through catalysis using surplus wind and solar electricity. It is time to start the war on gas.

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