Getting off coal is “important to maintain political legitimacy” in China

China’s economic slowdown and its shift away from heavy manufacturing “are long-term trends characterizing China’s new phase of economic development,” a  key point made last year in a post on a new study from the Center for American Progress:  

Second, China’s shift away from coal is part of a “long-term strategy” to respond to their terrible air pollution problems, as well as climate change. The authors note, “For the government, curbing air pollution is important aspect of maintaining political legitimacy.” Many Chinese experts in and out of the country made that same point.

On the climate front, the Chinese government said back in November 2014 that it would cap coal use by 2020, as reported. And that pledge came quickly after the breakthrough CO2 deal Chinese President Xi Jinping announced with Obama that same month, where we learned “China intends to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030 and to make best efforts to peak early.” China was always planning to peak CO2 (and coal) early.

Third, the authors point out that China has made leadership in clean energy a national priority. We’ve already seen China become a leader in solar manufacturing and deployment, wind manufacturing and deployment, and electric car and battery manufacturing and deployment. China now accounts for “one third of global investment in clean energy.”

But what about the fact that China kept building new coal plants in 2014 and 2015, which has left many new coal plants running at low capacity or not being used at all, as Greenpeace’s China “Energy Desk” explained last month, Beijing has responded by implementing much stronger policies to stop this expansion:

  • Placing a three-year moratorium on new coal mines
  • Ordering 13 provincial governments to stop approving new coal-fired power plants, and 15 others to stop building those already approved
  • Telling 28 of China’s 31 mainland provinces that all approvals for new coal plants should be suspended, thereby halting 90% of plants currently seeking approval

We will see in the coming months how well the provinces follow these orders, but according to the most recent official government statistics, compared to 2015, coal production fell 9.7 percent in the first half of 2016.

Lord Stern and his fellow authors note that “in transitioning to post-coal growth, China is following the path of affluent industrial economies” — albeit at a somewhat faster pace. They offer these charts:

Historical trajectories of economic development and coal consumption for the UK, U.S. and China ( data normalized for comparison; note differences in values on both axes). The x-axis shows the logarithm of per-GDP and the y-axis shows the logarithm of national coal consumption.

In the United States, coal use has been dropping like a … chunk of coal. If China follows suit, that will truly be a game-changer for the climate.