The weakness of dictatorship: China and coal

Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace India, and the Sierra Club have just released the fifth annual Boom and Bust report, tracking the global coal plant pipeline. The news is mostly good, with three glaring exceptions, all related to China.

First, as reported last year, provincial governments appear to have restarted construction on a number of coal-fired power plants, previously suspended on the orders of the central government. Second, the China Electricity Council, which represents the country’s power utilities, has proposed setting the country’s coal capacity cap at 1,300 gigawatts, a level that would allow 290 gigawatts of new capacity to be added—more than the entire coal fleet of the U.S. (259 gigawatts). Finally, Chinese financial institutions, mostly state-owned are the last large scale backers of coal-fired projects at a global level.

It remains to be seen how this will play out. Perhaps the central govenment will pull the provinces and state-owned enterprises into line and override the Electricity Council.

The bigger lesson here is that even though China is well on the way to becoming a personal dictatorship of Xi Jinping, and despite the supposedly Leninist organization of the Communist party he leads (the official phrase is “democratic centralism“) most of the real power in the country is exercised by local magnates, just as it was in the days of warlord rule. That seems to be characteristic of dictatorship.

Over the fold, the good news

The findings include

a 20% drop in newly completed coal plants (53% in the past three years), a 39% drop in new construction starts (84% in the past three years), and a 24% drop in plants in pre-construction activity (69% over the past three years) year-on-year.
Coal plant retirements continued at a record pace.

Developments in India are particularly encouraging. India is now adding more solar and wind than coal, and hardly any new permits are being issued. The idea that India is desperate for more Australian coal is being proved false.

15 thoughts on “The weakness of dictatorship: China and coal

  1. I just don’t get it. Greens and Labor tell us it’s becoming more economical to generate with renewables than coal here. Much of the hardward to generate renewables (like PV cells) comes from in China yet they appear to be pushing the coal wagon. Maybe it’s environmental conditions? Not enough wind, not enough sun (in the northern 3rd of China), too much polution or fog? Do some over there have the same ideological attachment to coal as those on the right have here and in the US?

  2. It’s harsh, hard, and unavoidable physical reality spelt ‘eroi’. And some cashing in on it economic behaviour before the crash whilst the sun still shines for others.

  3. Troy, China consumes almost half the electricity of the United states but — at around 190 gigawatts — has twice as much wind power capacity as the United States. China has around 170 gigawatts of PV solar capacity while the United States has around 70 gigawatts. At the moment perhaps 5% of new cars in China are electric and in the US it is perhaps 1%. The construction of any new coal capacity in China is a bad thing, but they are not the world’s fossil fuel slouchers. We are.

  4. As your point out in your article John there are a range of motivations from ‘cronyism at best ….(to)… outright corruption at worst’. And sometimes it is not cronyism where the players know each other, but simply the power of vested interest which is at play in all societies.

  5. China is too large and various to be tightly governed (the US has the same problem). It’s not so much “real power” as power has to be shared, and the centre cannot push too hard on local interests without generating a backlash. In this case, I would guess some combination of hunger for development, intertwined interests and corruption – the same factors that lead to environmental destruction in Australia.

  6. I suspect the problems with the provincial governments using money to buy coal plants could and probably will be solved without too much pain by China upgrading it’s grid so the huge amounts of currently wasted renewable energy could be used. In this case, the poorer provinces are presumably happy to build anything they can get money for, and they would simply build more renewable energy instead of coal. It would also probably employ more people than those employed in coal mining, so that is another bonus for the provincial and central government.

  7. When it comes to human economy CO2 emissions it seems in broad terms that Europe is doing something about ameliorating the problem and the rest of the world is doing nothing. It pains me to say this as a Eurosceptic. It also pains me that being a (Left) Eurosceptic lumps me in, in one way, with alt-Right populists. I propose to deal with the first issue in this post to keep it on topic.

    Why is Europe showing some signs of success in this battle against emissions? One, do they have better real system incentives to change behavior? Two, have they set up better formal economic incentives to change behavior?

    One, I would argue that Europe is in a position where its historically very modest fossil reserves (judged by modern volume standards) are reaching a point of substantial depletion. A map of world oil reserves (based on unconventional reserves being added in with conventional reserves) shows Europe to be in a parlous state re domestic oil reserves. It has very low reserves. The “Export Land” model of oil use shows large producers of oil to be more and more directing their oil production to domestic use. The logical end result is that non-oil producing areas like Europe will sooner, not later, be starved of oil imports. The picture is much the same with gas. Europeans mentally must confront the likely reality of a non-oil, non-gas future before other economic blocks. This perhaps leads to better forward thinking.

    The situation with coal is little different. Again, by modern world volume standards (see Wikipedia, coal by country), Europe’s coal reserves are relatively low. The top five countries for reserves are in order, USA, Russia, China, India, Australia. However, the top five current producers are China, USA, EU, India, Australia. Unfortunately, it appears the first table for reserves has not shown EU as an entity. Adding European countries together only promotes the EU to 8th on that table (above Poland 9th on its own) and to a reserve number well less than half of Australia’s reserves. The picture is of relatively modest remaining EU coal reserves being used up relatively quickly. Again this points to an incentive to think ahead strategically re energy security, even disregarding the CO2 emissions problem.

    Europe in the above sense is being induced to be virtuous by its real economic-strategic incentives. Like most humans, the denizens of Europe are better at being virtuous when reality acts to begin forcing them to be virtuous. This is not to devalue what they are doing but to point out some of the real incentives as causative elements.

    We can also look at susceptibility to sea level rise. The regions and countries most concerned and vocal about sea level rise seem to be, in no particular order, Europe, all the island countries and some second and third world countries with large coastal or delta populations like Bangladesh. Standout countries which should be worried but don’t act like it are USA, China and Australia. All have highly vulnerable seaboards and coastal cities with large populations relative to their total populations in each case. Mega-cities like Tokyo and Jakarta (and thus Japan and Indonesia) should also be highly concerned. Europe is worried no doubt because of the vulnerability of major cities like London and areas kike the Low Countries and the entire North European Plain including the North German Plain or Northern Lowland. In this case the Europeans are thinking ahead both because of the clear existential incentive to be virtuous but also because they are not being obtuse and blind like the Americans, Chinese and Australians.

    Have the Europeans set up better formal economic incentives to change behavior? That can make up my next post if I get to it.

  8. Today in the press: New Headline:

    The Strength of Dictatorship. AI. Arresting Intelligence.

    Subhead: “In this administration, a place can be found for every bad man.”

    Tiger gives monkey a sledgehammer. Tiger fashion sledgehammer into scapel. Then they came for you…

    Transparency needed or soon you’ll be holding YOUR pants up and being led down “Absolute Power Way”. A belt and road initiative. 

    “The authors make the point that China sells its surveillance tech around the world as a “scalpel,” but in Xinjiang, it is a “sledgehammer” — an overwhelming show of force that is intended to instill terror to such a degree that even attempting to evade it is unthinkable.

    “The report paints a picture of a city forested with CCTVs, indoors and outdoors, where checkpoints every 100m are used to verify facial recognition biometrics and to spot-check that each person is running mandatory state malware on their mobile devices. The checkpoints are often staffed by Uighurs who are complicit in the oppression of their neighbors — there just aren’t enough Han Chinese in Xinjiang to accomplish this kind of artisanal, hand-crafted retail oppression.”

    The West World – makes arguing about whether islam is westlam seem to me now a dangerous diversionary circus.

    Don’t do evil yourself, stack AI ethics boards with “members of its Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC), which is tasked with informing the company’s decisions around AI and other technologies. Among those appointed to ATEAC is Kay Coles James, the President of the Heritage Foundation, who is vocally anti-trans, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-immigrant…”

    “In selecting James, Google is making clear that its version of “ethics” values proximity to power over the wellbeing of trans people, other LGBTQ people, and immigrants. Such a position directly contravenes Google’s stated values.”… 

    The next para is an astounding naked power excuse “diversity of thought”! Are China and Google 2 sides of the same anti-civilisation coin?

    ” Following the announcement, the person who took credit for appointing James stood by the decision, saying that James was on the council to ensure “diversity of thought.” This is a weaponization of the language of diversity. By appointing James to the ATEAC, Google elevates and endorses her views, implying that hers is a valid perspective worthy of inclusion in its decision making. This is unacceptable.”

    View at
    Using your real name? Posting to f’book? Using goo goliath? Try duckduckgo and a local vpn. 

    I didn’t believe a housemate in 1987 that his Macquarie uni lecturer told the students “get a false bank account and identity now, as soon you won’t be able too”. Ignorant yooth & un-kultcha was I – “”It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active”.
    A.I. antibotics following…
    “Mary Catherine Bateson on how Women Can Transform Society”

    “Bateson began the evening with a call for the need to revive the almost forgotten science of systems theory in light of the complex networks of AI.”

    Refreshing Mary Catherine Bateson quote in first minute of video; “… she wins the race  by NOT exploiting…”

    Via; Catherine 

    *** Ancient strain of AI antibiotic.
    You have been warned before:
    “It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.” – John Philpot Curran: … and appropriate as well by Curran”In this administration, a place can be found for every bad man.”

    Mary Catherine Bateson antibiotics all ’round then?

  9. Earlier I wrote that China’s electricity consumption is almost half that of the United States. While technically correct, that’s not how the phrase is usually used. China’s electricity consumption is more than half that of the United States, not less.

  10. Electricity production:

    China – 6,310,000,000,000 kW-h/y.
    USA – 3,911,000,000,000 kW-h/y.

    Basically China is well on top of the USA in absolute terms. This applies to a lot of real production. China is making much more REAL stuff. USA is making more “paper” wealth, virtual and non-tangible stuff.

    China now has half the world’s steel production. The USA produces less than a tenth of the steel China produces.

    China produces the most cement globally by a large margin, at an estimated 2.4 billion metric tons in 2018, followed by India at 290 million metric tons in the same year and the USA at a pitiful (for a superpower 88.5 million metric tons) . China currently produces over half of the world’s cement.

    Computer exports in 2014 in millions of United States dollars:

    1. China 163,421
    2. Netherlands 26,667
    3. United States 26,286

    Car production by country:

    1 China 29,015,434
    2 USA 11,189,985
    3 Japan 9,693,746

    On these figures, one would have to say the USA is in a pitiful state of relative decline and even likely absolute decay in terms of real production. Ultimately, real production is what counts. Virtual and non-tangible wealth is not worth diddly squat when the sh** hits the fan.

    By the same token, China’s high production levels and global raw material supply logistics are not anywhere near secure yet. It’s hard to say if they ever wiil be. China also faces many problems from overpopulation, environmental issues, desertification and coastal sinking plus sea level rise. Also, it is doubtful if China’s food security will ever really be assured.

    But if the USA does not undergo a massive Green New Deal renaissance and a social and educational renaissance they too are in huge trouble. Of course if China and the USA are in trouble then the rest of us are too. If China and the USA catch the flu then we catch worse. I don’t even like to use an analogy.

  11. Thanks for that Ikono. The figure I had for China’s electricity consumption was correct but my figure for the US was way off. I don’t know what I did there.

  12. When thinking about China it’s always worth bearing in mind that several of the provinces are of similar size, geographically and demographically, to the larger states of the European Union.

  13. John Quiggin says April 5, 2019 at 4:55 pm –

    “… @2 As regards EROEI, it’s not an issue for solar or wind https :// ”

    Nope. As iain said back there, August 11, 2015 at 10:13 pm: “… I’m looking forward to the day that solar power powers solar panel production 100% and at a profit. In the same way I look forward to seeing unicorns.”

    Yes, it’s a fallacy. Argument by repetition, proof by assertion, whatever, based on work of contrived, constrained, and cherry-picked limited scope by pv industry captured researchers such as Raugei et al doesn’t cut it. Wishful thinking won’t make it so, though it may generate a tidy sum for some in the here and now. Anyway, we’ve only a few decades at most to wait to see how this turns out in actuality at the planetary scale as there are so many large scale Hubbert curve tests being run in reality on associated resources. Nature will bat last, as always.

    We went over this last December. That left off below with impeccably disinterested Ferroni et al, the people who actually wrote the book on eroi over decades, rebutting your cited pv industry spruikers Raugei et al. Raugei and his industry backers brought money, bought media, and slick PR to the fight time after time, and afaik Ferroni coincidently reached retiring age with better things to do in limited time, family etc, and let it go as tired of the pv spruikers falacious ‘argumentum ad nauseam’ and of their repeated putting the fix in with a number of journal editors/publishers. He took his leave saying in essence that time will tell for those still around. All documented as per earlier links provided.

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