Fri, Sep 25, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Fading coal industry in China could help slow global warming

China’s coal consumption reached a plateau, raising hopes for an early decline in carbon emissions

By Edward Wong and Chris Buckley  /  NY Times News Service, DATONG, China

Illustration: Mountain People

Across China’s grimy coal heartland, mines have fallen silent, reduced production or shut down. Miners, owners and officials wonder whether boom times will return for the “black gold” that has fed the nation’s craving for cheap but dirty energy.

“I think it’s finished,” said Wang Jinwang (王金旺), a longtime miner whose salary has been cut by one-fifth.

China’s coal consumption weakened last year and through the first half of this year, largely because of a slowing economy, according to statistics from China’s largest coal industry analysis group.

However, the gloom pervading northern China’s coal country could mean brighter prospects for worldwide efforts to slow global warming. Some experts say that if China’s coal use continues to slow or even falls, its greenhouse gas emissions could peak years earlier than the government had promised, which could make a critical difference planetwide in limiting rising temperatures and sea levels.

That subject would be on the table when US President Barack Obama hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) at the White House yesterday and today.

US officials have tried to persuade Xi to make a notable declaration on China’s climate commitments during his visit, as he did when Obama went to Beijing in November last year. In the United States, opponents of Obama’s climate policies often cite China’s growing emissions to argue against reductions from the US side.

There is little expectation that Xi will promise anything as drastic as he did last year, when he vowed that China’s emissions of carbon dioxide would peak by about 2030, a fairly conservative goal. However, with international climate talks in Paris less than three months away, any signals the two leaders send from Washington will be closely scrutinized.

“They really need to make sure they’re clarifying for the rest of the world that, hey, we’ve got some serious difficulties to work out on cyber and other issues, and we’re not going to step back from that, but that doesn’t mean that our climate partnership is any less strong,” said Melanie Hart, director of China policy at the Center for American Progress and an energy and climate change academic.

Xi will have to lay out his energy and pollution goals for the rest of the decade by early next year, when the government settles on its next five-year growth plan. That plan is likely to include tax initiatives, expanded emissions trading and new pollution restrictions, analysts said.

The slowing demand for coal has led to further debate among policy advisers, who are reassessing the goal of reaching a peak in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. The burning of coal and other fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that causes global warming.

If current trends in coal use continue, some experts say, that goal could be moved up to 2025, which the US favors. Speeding up the timeline would also require new policies to motivate industries to harness cleaner sources of energy and make the economy more energy-efficient, experts say.

However, some officials argue that robust coal use is still needed to keep the economy from slowing too much and too quickly, and that sharp cuts to coal use could imperil jobs and prove too costly.

“It’s a question of political will — of whether China can carry through on its current thinking, of whether there’s enough strong political will to refrain from going back to the old mentality,” said Ranping Song (宋然平), who monitors the emissions-cutting efforts of China and other developing nations for the World Resources Institute.

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