The west has to work with China to ‘end coal’ – purely hectoring will achieve little

China’s own interests are best served by exercising leadership on climate action

Vince Cable
Tuesday 02 November 2021 16:52

G20 leaders make mild pledges on carbon neutrality and coal financing as Cop26 begins

Not too long ago, the closure of Britain’s coal mines evoked passionate opposition from progressives. The cold ruthlessness of Thatcher’s economic policy and the use of state violence against striking miners culminated in the destruction of an industry and the working-class communities in which it had been based. Many later became the alienated, Brexit-voting, Left Behind.

The miners’ leader Arthur Scargill is now 83. He still commands an audience for his nostalgic oratory on the revolutionary socialist circuit. But despite his efforts, it is his nemesis, Thatcher, who is enjoying a posthumous reputational revival. She is now regarded as a pioneering national leader for having killed off the coal industry since, coincidentally, she understood the significance of man-made climate change and the need for multilateral cooperation to contain it.

Her successors now boast that only 2 per cent of Britain’s electricity is generated in coal-fired power stations: a key qualification for global climate leadership at Cop26. Britain may have led the world with coal-based industrialisation but we are now leading the charge in the opposite direction.

Boris Johnson has grasped that Britain is therefore on stronger political ground declaring war on coal than in financing climate crisis mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries. He likes sabre-rattling that the villains of the piece are in Asia – most particularly in China – while also enjoying popular acclaim among some voters for cutting Britain’s aid budget. Yet British aid achieves far more in helping poorer countries deal with the climate crisis than a prime ministerial speech ever could.

Burning coal to generate power or manufacture steel and cement is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A molecule of coal is almost 100 per cent carbon; gasoline or diesel around 80 per cent; natural gas – a mixture of methane and ethane – is around 60 per cent;. For renewables – hydro, wind and solar and nuclear – the carbon content should be zero.

For developed, post-industrial, economies, coal is now a marginal source of energy. But the last vestiges of coal mining and consumption have proved remarkably tenacious. Germany will continue to burn its very polluting lignite deposits until the end of the decade. Japan has small, high cost, coal mines. 30 per cent of its electricity is based on – mostly imported – coal which has increased in importance because of issues around the country’s nuclear power industry. Meanwhile Japan continues to export coal-burning technology elsewhere.

President Joe Biden’s promise to lead the world in a post-Trump blitz on GHGs has been seriously compromised by opposition to coal-curbing legislation from his Democrat colleague, Senator Manchin. Manchin has protected the highly-mechanised, open-cast mines of Appalachian West Virginia though they employ only 14,000 people, down from more than 100,000 a few decades ago.

Australia is another coal champion. Its vast deposits are mainly (70 per cent) exported to Asia while the remainder make up three quarters of the fuel used in the country’s power stations. Leading conservative politicians have shown climate scepticism. It took some arm-twisting to get the prime minister, Scott Morrison, to attend Glasgow and he is set to be a determined pacifist in the "war on coal".

The Appalachian and Australian refuseniks have, however, prevented the Western world from turning the war on coal into a war on China. China is at the heart of the world’s coal economy. In 2020 it produced 3.84bn tons, around half of the world total (followed by Indonesia, 9 per cent; India, 8 per cent; then Australia on just under 8 per cent; and the USA on 7 per cent. Because of coal, China is the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 with around a 28 per cent share, approaching double that of the USA. Its dominance explains the misanthropic new chorus of British climate sceptics: why should we bother with our 1 per cent of emissions when China has 28 per cent and growing?

It also explains the glib cynicism at the heart of Johnson’s clarion call to “consign coal to history”. He knows (or ought to) that this is much easier said than done in developing economies.

Until recently, China used the argument, popular in the Group of 77 developing countries, that, as a poor country, it has no responsibility for clearing up the accumulated mess created by industrialised world. Now, however, China takes climate change and the contribution of coal very seriously. That is not because its leadership has been swayed by the ethical appeals of the Pope and Greta Thunberg. Rather, it sees China’s own interests are best served by exercising leadership on climate.

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China is potentially a victim of climate change which could worsen its chronic shortage of fresh water. And coal burning is causing great environmental and health damage in China itself. An estimated 750,000 Chinese die prematurely because of the appalling air quality of Chinese cities. The party leadership worries about public anger and unrest over air pollution.

Sir David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the British government, has praised the Chinese authorities for policies which have cut the share of fossil fuels in power generation from 75 per cent 15 years ago to 56 per cent now. He says: “The USA can’t claim anything like the effort China has put in”. China has introduced a cap and trade system of carbon pricing which the USA finds too politically difficult. The country now has the world’s largest renewable sector and is well advanced in the electrification of vehicles. In 2017, many permits for building new coal-fired power stations were cancelled to force the pace of decarbonisation. China will no longer sell coal-fired power stations overseas.

But despite these advances the rapid, post-Covid economic recovery has exposed China’s energy vulnerability without coal. Coal shortages, aggravated by depleted stocks and transport bottlenecks, have led to serious power cuts affecting industry and households. There has been a surge in Liquid Natural Gas imports to replace coal (and this increased demand has indirectly added to the rise in gas prices in Europe). But, to fill the current energy gap, 43 new coal powered power stations have also been approved in the last six months and the existing mines are working flat out.

In the longer run, coal use will continue to fall (relatively if not absolutely), and will be replaced by cheaper renewables. In the meantime, the authorities have to manage the debts of "stranded assets" in the coal industry and safeguard the future of 2.6 million coal miners and their families. Even the powerful President Xi Jinping cannot ignore them. The west may complain about "lack of ambition" in China’s target of net zero emissions by 2060 and peak emissions in 2030 but, in the absence of a breakthrough in carbon capture or "clean coal", those targets represent massive challenges even for an authoritarian regime.

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China is not alone. India and other rapidly growing Asian countries like Indonesia and Vietnam also face severe challenges. India produces 720 million tons of coal and imports around 220 million tons, not least to supply the steel industry. Coal provides 70 per cent of the country’s electricity. As in China, India has been faced with a severe energy, and coal, shortages post-Covid. And as in China there is only the potential to replace coal with cheaper renewables if their notoriously inefficient power sector can connect these new sources to the grid. Overall, India is less prepared for decarbonisation than China.

These vast numbers place into sharp relief the British miners’ strikes which pitched Thatcher’s government against workers in an industry even then only employing 200,000. It still took 30 years to achieve closure in the coal mining industry. India has at least six times that number of miners we had and China 13 times: workers who are necessary for development, to keep the lights on and industry functioning.

It is a curious irony that western countries bash China for failing to become a liberal democracy, but ask it to decimate employment in a way no democracy ever could. If Cop26 is going to chart a real course toward ‘ending coal’, it will need to acknowledge these realities. Just shouting “STOP” is ridiculous and will serve only to unite developing Asia (including China) even further against the west.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015

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