Electricity in China

2010-05-11

in Economics, Politics, The environment

Due to its large population and growing wealth and international importance, the way China gets its energy has considerable relevance for the rest of the world. From a climate change perspective, the story is not a very encouraging one. Firstly, China gets abour 75% of its power from coal. Secondly, its economy is arranged such that the energy use per dollar of GDP is extremely high – about four times more than in the United States, and about eight times more than Britain. Partly, that is the consequence of how electricity in China is kept artificially cheap, with a price per megawatt-hour of just $0.59, compared with $0.89 in the United States and $1.86 in Britain.

Quite possibly, the low energy efficiency of China is partly a consequence of how rich states have exported a great deal of their highly polluting industry to places like China. They can pat themselves on the back for keeping domestic emissions relatively flat, while importing all the carbon-intensive goods they want from places like China. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Steven Davis and Ken Caldiera quantify these flows:

We find that, in 2004, 23% of global CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes CO2, were traded internationally, primarily as exports from China and other emerging markets to consumers in developed countries. In some wealthy countries, including Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, >30% of consumption-based emissions were imported, with net imports to many Europeans of >4 tons CO2 per person in 2004. Net import of emissions to the United States in the same year was somewhat less: 10.8% of total consumption-based emissions and 2.4 tons CO2 per person.

This map, showing the magnitude of these flows, is rather telling.

Given the importance of having global emissions of greenhouse gases peak soon, then fall rapidly towards zero, the direction China is taking is worrisome:

The use of power derived from coal will continue to grow in absolute terms (although new coal-fired plants are to be more efficient and cleaner), but its share of total Chinese output will fall from 75% to 65%, estimates Credit Suisse’s Mr Chen. Hydropower will expand by more than half, but its share of the total will drop a bit, from 21% to 20%. Wind power will see a big expansion, taking its share from 3% to 7%, as will nuclear, up from 1% to 5%. The rest will come from such niches as solar panels and incinerators.

It is good that China is deploying renewables on such a scale, and promising (though also worrisome) that they are leading the world in construction of nuclear reactors, with 21 on the way. At the same time, China is going to have to accept that ever-rising absolute emissions from coal-fired power stations is not an approach that is compatible with climatic stability. Ultimately, those facilities are going to need to be shut down.

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