… in three regions.

When it comes to climate change, coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, is a definite baddie — BTU for BTU, burning it puts out almost 30 percent more carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning petroleum and about 78 percent more CO2 than natural gas. Want to fight climate change? Then you better curb coal-fired power plants.* And to the Obama administration’s credit, they have undertaken (or at least seem about to undertake) using the authority they have under the Clean Air Act to stop the building of new coal-fired power plants that fail to limit their carbon output and maybe even force existing coal-fired power plants to clean up their act.

The Climate Skeptics Play the China Card

For many who oppose action on climate change here in the United States, the administration’s efforts to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants are misguided. The reasons are varied, but a common refrain is that the real problem when it comes to CO2 emissions and the climate is China because one, it has more global warming emissions than any other country and two, China burns more than half of all the coal used in the entire world. And so the argument goes, why should we do something that might hurt our economy** and send American jobs to China, when they have no intention of doing anything about their emissions?

China Trumps?

Five or 10 years ago, the China card was a sure winner. But that was then and things have changed. China has taken a number of steps to address its global warming emissions:

And there’s also the fact that the United States and China have begun high-level talks on bilateral actions that might be taken to mitigate climate change.

Yesterday, Chinese officials announced another seemingly startling step aimed squarely against coal. Citing serious air quality problems, the government will ban construction of new coal-fired power plants in three major industrial regions of the country near Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou and will reduce coal’s portion of total energy production from 2011’s 68.4 percent to below 65 percent by 2017. (The government also announced plans to outlaw some of the nation’s most polluting vehicles.)

How Significant Are These Steps?

So how significant are these new moves by the Chinese government, especially in the context of climate change?

It’s easy to dismiss this. Bear in mind that air quality was cited as the reason to ban the new plants and the ban only applies to plants built in the three regions where air quality problems are most severe. There’s nothing to stop new coal-fired plants from being built elsewhere in China to make up the difference which would negate any climate benefit.

Indeed, Martin Adams of the Economist Intelligence Unit told The Associated Press that China’s total coal emissions will still increase over the rest of the decade and that China’s total coal usage was already projected to fall below 65 percent by 2017. To Adams’s mind, “There’s less to [the new plan] probably than meets the eye.”

But here’s the good news: The Chinese government appears to be coming to its senses. It can no longer ignore the environment in order to pursue unbridled economic growth. These announcements indicate the green movement is alive and growing in the red nation.


End Notes

* U.S. coal consumption is increasing as well: while this year’s U.S. coal production is not expected to top last year’s, we are using more at home. Exports are down and consumption is up.

** The economic argument against promulgating regulations to limit coal-fired power plants is a bit of a red herring. Even given the recent uptick in natural gas prices, gas-fired power plants are competitive with coal plants.


  1. Bill Chameides
    October 24, 2013, 2:14 pm

    Tom Harris: Head in sand causes sand in head.

  2. Scott Snyder
    Fayetteville AR
    September 17, 2013, 2:56 pm

    I think some of us are understating the scientific consensus on global warming. Among the climatologists who study this, 98% believe that the world is getting warmer and that manmade CO2 emissions are the cause and 2% against. By comparison, 2% of people believe in bigfoot. Counting scholarly articles recently published in the field, over 2700 come out in favor while 13 are against. If this were a Little League baseball game, it would have been called on the mercy rule long ago. Amongst the worlds leading scientific bodies, including NASA, NOAA and the National Academy of Science, all come out in support of global warming. And if the government came across a terrorist plot that even might do the damage to our agriculture and our coastal cities that global warming promises to, they would move heaven and Earth to prevent it. The Chinese are not stupid. They are starting to take this seriously. We need to start doing the same.

    Scott Snyder, Ph.D. , Duke University

  3. FishOutofWater
    Sanford NC
    September 16, 2013, 10:38 pm

    Air pollution caused by burning coal has killed staggering numbers of people in China. China also has severe water shortages. The only rational policy to take in China is to burn less coal and turn to cleaner power sources that are less water consumptive.

    Climate change is worsening both flooding and drought as climate scientists have predicted but, unfortunately, some Americans think that rejecting climate science is a litmus test for being a conservative. Climate science is complicated, but when the heating of the oceans is included in the analysis it is clear that the earth is heating up in response to increasing greenhouse gas levels just as the climate scientists predicted.

  4. Tom Harris
    Ottawa, Canada
    September 14, 2013, 1:21 am

    The above article confidently asserts:

    “Want to fight climate change? Then you better curb coal-fired power plants.”

    That makes no sense whatsoever.

    All that matters is whether the majority of scientists who research the causes of climate change, and that is a very small fraction of the scientific community indeed, support the hypothesis that our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are causing dangerous climate change.

    No one knows the answer to this question since reputable worldwide surveys have never been conducted on the issue. While the causes of climate change are scientifically interesting, it is only if we are causing dangerous change that the issue should be a public policy concern, let alone worth the tens of billions of dollars a year that is spent worldwide on the issue.

    Until such a survey is conducted, we must recognize that climate science is in its infancy. Not only are we not able to forecast future climate states, but we don’t even know if warming or cooling lie ahead. Trying to unravel the causes and consequences of climate change is arguably the most complex science ever tackled. Professors Chris Essex (University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Ross McKitrick (University of Guelph, Canada) write in their award-winning book Taken by Storm, “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”


    Tom Harris, B. Eng., M. Eng. (Mech. – thermofluids)
    Executive Director – International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

  5. mememine69
    September 13, 2013, 4:22 pm

    How could you remaining climate change believers not be termed; Fear Mongers for believing in a 28 year old crisis that science has only agreed could happen and have never agreed or said yet that it WILL be an inevitable crisis? Science isn’t saying it WILL be a crisis for our children, but YOU are! Who’s the neocon now eh?
    Find us one single IPCC warning that says a crisis is certain and inevitable as they have NEVER agreed on anything past “could be” and never “WILL be”.