Dirty side to China’s clean en­ergy rules

Do­mes­tic re­stric­tions to com­bat cli­mate change do not ap­ply to its projects abroad, such as coal plants.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kaiman

BEI­JING — Pak­istan’s Thar re­gion is a swath of desert in the coun­try’s south long associated with poverty, drought, famine — and coal.

Now, with some help from China, it could soon power the coun­try.

China has signed bil­lions of dol­lars in agree­ments with Pak­istan to help the coun­try al­le­vi­ate its chronic en­ergy short­ages, pri­mar­ily by burn­ing coal. New projects will in­volve min­ing bil­lions of tons of the fos­sil fuel an­nu­ally in the re­gion — home to some of the world’s big­gest coal de­posits — and build­ing five new coal-fired plants to help power Karachi, a me­trop­o­lis of 20 mil­lion peo­ple about 300 miles away.

Yet crit­ics say they could also fill the coun­try’s air with nox­ious smog for decades, ex­ac­er­bat­ing al­ready in­tense pub­lic health crises and con­tribut­ing to cli­mate change.

China, the world’s big­gest green­house gas emit­ter, has in re­cent years emerged as a global leader in cli­mate ac­tion. The coun­try’s use of coal — con­sid­ered the sin­gle big­gest con­trib­u­tor to an­thro­pogenic cli­mate change — has dropped ev­ery year since 2013, as its in­vest­ments in re­new­able en­ergy, es­pe­cially wind and so­lar, have soared.

Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown will travel to China this week for an in­ter­na­tional sum­mit on clean en­ergy, un­der­scor­ing the coun­try’s grow­ing role as a cen­ter of grav­ity in fight­ing cli­mate change.

Yet China’s do­mes­tic progress be­lies a spot­tier record abroad. It is the world’s largest ex­porter of coal-re­lated fi­nanc­ing and equip­ment. Its state-owned com­pa­nies — backed by state loans and ham­pered at

home by tight­en­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions — are in­volved in nearly 100 coal­fired power projects abroad, in coun­tries in­clud­ing Pak­istan, In­dia, In­done­sia, Viet­nam, Mon­go­lia and Iran.

“What’s go­ing down here is, there’s an over­all man­date from the govern­ment for com­pa­nies to go carry out projects abroad and ex­port their goods — and it’s the most pow­er­ful sta­te­owned com­pa­nies that end up do­ing that,” said Lauri Myl­lyvirta, a Bei­jing-based coal and air pol­lu­tion ex­pert at Green­peace. “And so what we’ve seen re­ally re­flects the power of the coal in­dus­try ver­sus the re­new­able en­ergy in­dus­try within China. What we’ve pri­mar­ily seen go­ing out of China is coal-fired tech­nol­ogy.”

For decades, de­vel­oped na­tions in­clud­ing the U.S. helped fund the con­struc­tion of coal-fired power plants in the de­vel­op­ing world. Yet in Novem­ber 2015, the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment’s 34 mem­ber states — in­clud­ing the U.S., Ja­pan and many Euro­pean coun­tries — agreed to re­strict fi­nanc­ing for the vast ma­jor­ity of over­seas coal-fired power plants. The World Bank in ef­fect stopped fund­ing new coal projects for de­vel­op­ing na­tions in 2013.

China, which is a mem­ber of the World Bank’s gov­ern­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion, but not the OECD, has yet to adopt a sim­i­lar pol­icy.

The scope of China’s coal-re­lated ex­ports — and whether they are even cause for alarm — is dif­fi­cult to as­sess, ac­cord­ing to Deb­o­rah Selig­sohn, an ex­pert on en­vi­ron­men­tal gov­er­nance at UC San Diego.

In ad­di­tion to coal-fired power plants, China is also build­ing hy­dropower, nat­u­ral gas, nu­clear, wind and so­lar projects around the world. Its ex­ported coal plants tend to be more ef­fi­cient — and could be more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly — than what could be pur­chased else­where for the same price.

“The Chi­nese are mostly ex­port­ing these quite mod­ern coal-fired power plants,” she said. “So com­pared to what might oth­er­wise be op­er­at­ing in these coun­tries, these might be cleaner, not dirt­ier.”

“I think it’s hard to know whether the Chi­nese are hav­ing that huge an im­pact on what the fuel choice is in third coun­tries,” she con­tin­ued. “I don’t think that’s been proven.”

Bei­jing, grap­pling with slow­ing eco­nomic growth at home, has pushed sta­te­owned firms to seek new mar­kets abroad. In 2013, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping an­nounced “One Belt, One Road,” a mas­sive project that in­volves in­fra­struc­ture con­struc­tion and trade ex­pan­sion in more than 60 coun­tries across Asia, Europe, north­ern Africa and the Mid­dle East.

From 2001 to 2016, Chi­nese firms were in­volved in 240 coal power projects in those coun­tries, many of which rank among the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble to the dam­ag­ing ef­fects of cli­mate change, in­clud­ing heat waves, floods, droughts and melt­ing glaciers.

When the projects are com­plete, they’ll have a to­tal gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity of 251 gi­gawatts, ac­cord­ing to the Global En­vi­ron­men­tal In­sti­tute, a Bei­jing-based non­profit. (By con­trast, only about 70 gi­gawatts of so­lar power was in­stalled glob­ally in 2016.)

China’s rhetoric has changed in re­cent years. In Septem­ber 2015, Xi, in a joint state­ment with Pres­i­dent Obama, agreed to “rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of mo­bi­liz­ing cli­mate fi­nance to sup­port low-car­bon, cli­mate-re­silient de­vel­op­ment in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.” And last year, China signed the Paris agree­ment, a his­toric ac­cord in which 195 coun­tries agreed to cur­tail cli­mate change by lim­it­ing global warm­ing to no more than 2 de­grees Cel­sius above prein­dus­trial lev­els.

(Pres­i­dent Trump tweeted Satur­day that he would make a “fi­nal de­ci­sion” on whether to with­draw the U.S. from the ac­cord this week, and is said to be lean­ing to­ward do­ing so.)

Yet since 2016, China has an­nounced, or be­gun de­vel­op­ing, sev­eral new coal projects through­out the world, ac­cord­ing to the on­line mag­a­zine Chi­na­di­a­logue and the non­profit CEE Bankwatch Net­work. The projects’ to­tal ca­pac­ity — more than 52 gi­gawatts — is more than that of planned coal-plant clo­sures in the U.S. by 2020.

China’s tough do­mes­tic stan­dards don’t ap­ply to ex­ports, and few of the projects have clar­i­fied their emis­sions stan­dards. Pub­lic in­for­ma­tion on the projects is scarce.

“There’s hardly any of­fi­cial data on the Chi­nese side,” said Frank Um­bach, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the Euro­pean Cen­ter for En­ergy and Re­source Se­cu­rity at King’s Col­lege Lon­don. “They’re not will­ing or in­ter­ested [in pro­vid­ing it] for ob­vi­ous rea­sons.”

Pak­istan stands to reap huge re­wards from Chi­nese ini­tia­tives. In 2013, the two coun­tries signed the $54-bil­lion China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor, a project so vast — in­volv­ing trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture, eco­nomic zones and a to­tal of 19 en­ergy projects — that a Pak­istani news­pa­per called it a “Mar­shall Plan for Pak­istan,” re­fer­ring to the U.S. ef­fort to re­build Europe af­ter World War II.

The en­ergy projects in­clude sev­eral power plants, three-fourths of which will be coal-fired. An es­ti­mated $5.8 bil­lion worth of coal power projects are ex­pected to be com­pleted across the coun­try by 2019.

The coun­try has a dire need for in­ex­pen­sive, ef­fi­cient power — only 67% of its nearly 200 mil­lion peo­ple have ac­cess to elec­tric­ity, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank. In many ways, coal fills the bill — it’s abun­dant, cheap and re­li­able.

Yet the coun­try’s em­brace of coal could come at a huge en­vi­ron­men­tal cost. Pak­istan cur­rently ac­counts for less than 1% of to­tal global car­bon emis­sions an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, but its emis­sions are in­creas­ing at 3.9% an­nu­ally.

Pak­istani of­fi­cials say the coal plants will use top-f light emis­sion-re­duc­ing tech­nol­ogy. But crit­ics say that even the clean­est coal-fired power plants still pol­lute; many of Thar’s nearly 100,000 peo­ple will need to be re­lo­cated; and the re­gion has mas­sive so­lar power po­ten­tial, mak­ing the new coal projects un­nec­es­sary.

“No sane per­son would want elec­tric­ity from dirty en­ergy sources, even though su­per­crit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy is used,” Ma­lik Amin As­lam, a for­mer state min­is­ter for the en­vi­ron­ment in Pak­istan, told Reuters.

“These plants, not be­ing com­pletely free of car­bon emis­sions, will still harm the pub­lic health and the coun­try’s en­vi­ron­ment.”

Xu Yuan, a cli­mate change ex­pert and pro­fes­sor at Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong, said that China’s lead­ers have learned to pri­or­i­tize en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues when pro­mot­ing hy­dropower projects abroad — pub­lic back­lashes have de­railed high-pro­file projects in Myan­mar and Hon­duras.

“But coal-fired power sta­tions are dif­fer­ent — they’re not go­ing to kill peo­ple im­me­di­ately or di­rectly,” he said. “They emit pol­lu­tion, which adds risk to the en­tire pop­u­la­tion. In that sense it’s quite dif­fer­ent.”

Xu added that China’s govern­ment be­gan fo­cus­ing on do­mes­tic en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues only af­ter years of in­tense pres­sure at home and abroad. Many of China’s coal-fired power plants over­seas — and the com­pa­nies over­see­ing them — sim­ply don’t see en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion as an obli­ga­tion.

“In my un­der­stand­ing of how the Chi­nese sys­tem works, you have to make sure the prob­lem is vis­i­ble, not just po­ten­tial,” he said. “And that’s very sad.”

Andy Wong Associated Press

CHINA has re­duced its use of coal ev­ery year since 2013 as its in­vest­ments in re­new­able en­ergy have soared. But it is also the world’s largest ex­porter of coal-re­lated fi­nanc­ing and equip­ment. Its state-owned firms are in­volved in nearly 100 coal-fired power projects abroad.

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