Trump gets it wrong on China and the Paris climate agreement
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Of the 189 nations that have committed to actions under the Paris climate agreement, no two will be more important than China and the United States. Together, these countries release nearly half of the world's carbon emissions.

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The two countries' pledges have now become intertwined in presidential politics. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE plans to honor the U.S. pledge to reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. However, Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE instead vows to renegotiate the Paris agreement, claiming that "China doesn't adhere to it, and China's spewing into the atmosphere."

China indeed spews more carbon to the atmosphere than any other nation. But contrary to Trump's claim, China is on track to meet its Paris pledges ahead of schedule.

China pledged to halt its growth in carbon emissions by 2030. That would have seemed an ambitious target when China's emissions were rising rapidly as its economy grew and industrialized. As growth has slowed and shifted to consumer sectors, scientists are now debating whether China's emissions have already peaked or merely slowed.

The future of China's emissions will depend on how quickly it transitions away from coal. China burns about as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Burning coal not only warms climate globally, but also contributes to the local air pollution that notoriously plagues Beijing and other cities. This gives China added impetus to reduce its coal use as its population clamors for cleaner air.

China is reining in coal on two fronts: targeting the mines that produce it and the power plants that burn it. China closed about 1,000 coal mines in 2015, and is on pace to close a similar number this year. China eventually plans to close about half of its more than 10,000 coal mines, while banning new coal mines for at least three years.

Coal output won't necessarily fall as fast as mines are being closed. Most of the mines being closed are small and relatively uneconomic. Since China's surplus mining capacity is nearly half its national output, the remaining mines could pick up the slack. Nevertheless, coal production has dropped an estimated 9.7 percent so far this year, on top of a 3.5 percent drop last year.

The power plants that burn the mined coal are being targeted as well. After initially banning new coal-fired plants in certain regions, China is expected to extend the ban nationwide until 2018.

As with its mines, China faces enormous surplus capacity in its power plants. China's coal plants operated at just 48 percent of capacity in the first quarter of this year. That leaves a lot of room to increase output even without building new plants. Still, a ban on new plants would curb potential growth in coal burning for years to come.

China's Paris commitment also included a pledge to derive 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels by 2030. Toward that goal, China led the world in investing in renewable technologies in 2015.

China added 15 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity last year, surpassing Germany as the leading solar market. China's latest Five-Year Plan would triple its overall solar capacity by 2020. Beyond its own installations, China produces about 70 percent of the world's solar panels. Falling prices for those panels has enhanced the affordability of solar power worldwide.

China also recently edged out the European Union as the leader in wind power installations, with capacity topping 145 GW. Last year, China installed as much wind capacity as the rest of the world combined.

However, China's wind turbines are underperforming those in other countries. China actually produces slightly less wind power than the U.S., despite possessing twice as much wind capacity. That's not only because of windier conditions and better operation at U.S. wind farms, but also because China's power grid curtails 15 percent of its wind power output. Oversupply of power sources and inadequate grid capacity lead China to waste nearly a tenth of its solar output as well. China is now acting to reduce curtailments by guaranteeing that grid companies purchase renewable power.

Greening China's electric supply could influence its vehicle emissions as well. China targets 5 million "new energy" vehicles on the road by 2020, several times the levels projected for the U.S. With most of those vehicles expected to be electric, a greener grid will help China replace some of its oil use with renewables rather than coal.

None of this progress will dethrone China as the leading "spewer" of carbon anytime soon. But contrary to political soundbites, China in many ways leads the world in confronting coal while pursuing renewable energy and clean vehicles. Despite its shortcomings, China gives the U.S. scant excuse to withdraw from the community of nations addressing climate change through the Paris Agreement.

Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.