faith birol

China coal use falls for second year in a row: IEA boss

Here’s what Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, tweeted this morning:

The key two words here are “if continues.” During the Paris climate summit, researchers from the Tyndall Centre at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and colleagues in the U.S., Australia and Norway approached 2014 and 2015 coal use and emissions data with cautious optimism. Is it a lasting trend, or an anomaly? It’s still too early to say.

Driven mostly by a need to get local air pollution under control, China has put a 2020 cap on coal emissions. Less economic emphasis is being put on energy-intensive industries such as steel manufacturing and big investment continues in renewables. That, combined with an economic slowdown, has contributed to a shifting to a “new normal,” said Glen Peters from Norway’s Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research. “It’s happening faster than we expected.”

Assuming the latest data from China is more than just an anomaly, what does that mean in the battle to rein in global GHG emissions? Answering that question means knowing what will happening in India, which was described by the researchers as the big wild card. India’s actions over the next 20 years could make or break attempts to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees C – let alone keeping such temperatures “well below” that threshold, a target specified in the Paris agreement.

There’s been a lot of hope that global GHG emissions and global GDP have permanently “decoupled”, meaning we can achieve economic growth without increasing emissions. Usually the two rise in lock-step, but the researchers, in a paper published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change, reported that global emissions were expected to fall last year during a period of decent economic growth. That’s unusual – and potentially great news – given that emissions growth between 2003 and 2014 averaged 2.4 per cent.

We’ll see. Some believe India won’t pull its weight in the climate fight, while others point to the country’s determination to embrace renewables, particularly solar. During the Paris summit one of the big announcements came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded creation of a 120-country solar alliance to help realize the “dream of universal access to clean energy.”

On the other hand, one of the most sobering moments during the Paris conference was when I heard India’s energy-efficiency chief Ajay Mathur talk about one of the country’s biggest challenges: a fast-growing middle class that wants air conditioning. Studies forecast that India’s middle class could double to half a billion people before 2030, and these people will want more of the comforts that North Americans take for granted. India has had its share of heat waves and is expected to experience more as the climate changes, so who could blame them for wanting to keep cool – especially if they have the means?

Mathur’s wish list over the coming years: amazingly energy-efficient air conditioners, “using at least half if not a third as much energy as we use today, and affordable as well,” he said. “How do we make that happen?”

It’s the billion-dollar question for a country that, based on its current energy trajectory, is expected to become the world’s largest importer of coal by 2020.

This isn’t to downplay Birol’s comment today about China. That such changes are taking place in China is tremendous news that should be applauded and encouraged. But we need to see in India what is currently happening in China before intolerable levels of smog begins choking its urban populations. Fortunately, renewable energy technologies are much more mature and affordable compared to when China began its rapid growth phase. Also, India has the benefit of learning from China’s mistakes and it has the backing of developed countries that want to see it make the right choices. Finally, post-Paris, it has added pressure from the international community to get it right.