Future Earth

Stop shopping? Not for all the coal in China

0 Comments 17 February 2011

So here’s what’s bothering me. It is estimated that in the developing world, coal consumption will increase by 20 per cent over the next 20 years. Clearly that’s heading in the wrong direction – and guess where the demand is?

China, which currently generates more than 70 per cent of its electricity with coal, and which will build more power stations in the next 25 years (some say sooner) than America, Japan and the EU currently possess.

Gulp. Time to break out the dinghies!

This does make my recycling efforts seem a little pointless. Why bother lugging the cardboard and the cans down to the local dump, when countless smokestacks will shortly be belching billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

But don’t blame China for the coal consumption. Be worried, yes, but don’t throw too many rocks their way.

It’s OUR fault

Firstly, we built the Great British Isles on coal during the Industrial Revolution. America was similarly built. True, we didn’t know what was happening back then, but the scenario was very similar. We needed cheap fuel to make and transport everything we needed, and the black rock was very plentiful and easily accessible. In other words, coal consumption was cheap.

Secondly, consider for a moment why China needs the extra coal capacity. It is partly because its population is evolving from an agrarian society to become city dwellers with consummate needs for heat and light. Can we blame them, from our well lit and warm living rooms?

Of course, there is a third reason for the surge in demand for coal, and it’s a rather ugly one at that. China needs the power to make everything that is destined for our Great British retail outlets, to be sold at nice, cheap prices. Remember, we’ve just outsourced all that coal capacity. If we hadn’t then all the products would be made here, using a similar amount of power.

So what to do?

Sadly, there’s no easy answer. Coal is cheap, very plentiful and easily accessible. The big irony here is that China imports a lot of its coal, despite having plenty of it own. That’s how cheap it is. I suppose that’s why China hasn’t jumped the technology gap and moved onto something more ecological, like many African countries have done. Alternative forms of power, such as wind, solar and geothermal are not cheap. All are expensive to manufacture and maintain, even for the Chinese.

While this ugly reality remains, the Chinese will continue to build coal power stations, with India sure to follow suit very soon.

To be fair to the Chinese, they are looking at greener alternatives. They have just resurrected the Nu River dam project,which had previously been shelved due to environmental pressure to preserve endangered wildlife. Now there’s an irony.

As I have stated previously, I would be quite happy to pay a global CO2 tax in order to attempt to rectify this situation. It may sound daft but it is sure to control consumption. Price always does.

I recently read that the UK will meet its CO2 reduction commitments. Why? Because there’s a recession on and people aren’t spending money on CO2-generating activities. They don’t have as much money and therefore prices seem higher.

Consequently there is less travel. We are all more conscious of the thermostat and turning off the lights. In essence we are consuming less and emissions are falling as a result.

That won’t last. As the economy picks up, we will all be back doing what we do best.

It’ll be the Maldives (if they haven’t disappeared beneath the waves by then) instead of Morecambe. We’ll want a 3D television instead of the HD alternative. Who will want last year’s iPhone when they could have the latest iPhone? We’ll throw in the latest MacBook too, why not? And the result of our “end-of-recession” shopping spree?

China’s additional gigawatts of capacity will belch into action on the other side of the world, while we dutifully trip down to the local tip to recycle all the packaging from our latest purchases.

Image: Coals by Elgutek

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