This picture taken last week shows traffic in heavy smog in Beijing. Coal usage in China will fall as cities such as Beijing move to cleaner fuel sources to tackle pollution. Picture: AFP PHOTO
This picture taken last week shows traffic in heavy smog in Beijing. Coal usage in China will fall as cities such as Beijing move to cleaner fuel sources to tackle pollution. Picture: AFP PHOTO

Beijing — The world’s worst polluter is leading the clean-energy revolution, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

China will account for a third of new wind-and solar-power installations and 40% of electric vehicle investments until 2040, the Paris-based agency said on Tuesday in its World Energy Outlook.

Meanwhile, the country’s coal use peaked four years ago and it will cede its role as the driver of global oil demand to India after 2025. China’s coal production in October dropped to the lowest in eight months, as some mines were shut to ensure safety during the twice-a-decade Community Party congress.

Some mining operations were temporarily halted to ensure no accidents occurred in the lead up to and during the 19th congress in Beijing last month, according to Fenwei Energy analysts. "The big drop is within expectation," Zeng Hao, an analyst with Fenwei Energy, said. "Domestic coal output in November will likely return to [the] September level as mines resume operation after the party congress."

Inbound shipments of overseas coal dropped to the lowest in three months as lower prices curbed deliveries, according to data released by the customs bureau last week. China’s regulators banned coal imports at some ports starting on July 1.

Underscoring the shift is a maturing economy that is moving away from energy-intensive industry and government policies aimed at cleaning up air pollution that causes almost 2-million premature deaths a year, the agency said in its report.

The falling costs of renewables also play a role, as solar is expected to become China’s cheapest source of new electricity additions, surpassing natural gas by 2020 and coal by 2030.

"China is entering a new phase in its development, with the emphasis in energy policy now firmly on electricity, natural gas and cleaner, high-efficiency and digital technologies," the report said. "China’s choices will play a huge role in determining global trends, and could spark a faster clean-energy transition."

Until recently, China’s export-oriented economy demanded a coal-and oil-intense economy that, over the past 15 years, helped bring modern fuels to 260-million people who had been relying on burning wood and biofuels for heat and cooking. That economic development brought with it a legacy of environmental issues, as only 2% of China’s population breathes air that meets World Health Organisation particulate guidelines.

New government policies aiming to reverse poor air quality are proving to be a boon for natural gas, the most environmentally benign of fossil fuels, and renewables. Natural gas use, which was about 210-billion m³ last year, is projected to grow by 400-billion by 2040. China’s imports will be second to only the EU, making it a lynchpin of global trade.

China is already a leader in renewables, ranked first in the world by installed capacity of wind, solar and hydro-power. Half of all additions to its electricity-generating capacity since 2013 have been renewables or nuclear. By 2040, the IEA sees renewables accounting for 40% of total power generation. Coal, which contributes about 67% of generation now, will fall to 40% over that period.

"The power supply in China undergoes a transformation, with renewables accounting for more than three-quarters of all capacity additions to 2040," the agency said. "Wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) lead the way, making up about two thirds of total additions combined."

The pace of China’s economic transition, and therefore its energy transformation, will be vital to achieving global climate goals, according to the agency. If China takes just a decade longer than expected to transition to its cleaner path, coal and oil demand would rise further and carbon emissions to 2040 would increase by 2.7-billion tonnes, an amount that would require growing 70-billion tree seedlings for a decade to offset it.

Meanwhile, if it takes a decade less than expected for China’s economy to transition, it would wipe out about 5.3-billion tonnes of carbon emissions.


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