In China, “it seems that economic growth has decoupled from growth in coal consumption,” wrote world-renowned senior economists in a recent paper published in Nature Geoscience.
Coal has powered China’s growing economy. From 2000 to 2013, demand for the dirty fuel increased by an average of 12 percent per year and the Red Dragon burned more than 4.6 billion tons in 2013 alone, the paper states.
China consumes about half the total amount of coal burned globally every year, which makes it the largest consumer on the planet and the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Although China still gets most of its energy from coal today, the country decreased consumption in 2014 and 2015 by 2.9 percent and 3.6 percent respectively (there is some uncertainty around the quality of data, which was updated by the Chinese government since it was originally released). Simultaneously, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 7.3 percent and 6.9 percent in those years, wrote the authors.
Is this just a fluctuation in energy demand trends or has China reached peak coal?
“We argue that China’s coal consumption has indeed reached an inflection point much sooner than expected, and will decline henceforth,” states the report.
There are three fundamental reasons behind this argument: the country’s economy is slowing down, domestic air pollution policies restrict the energy sector and renewable energy is making up an increasingly larger share of China’s the energy mix.
As part of the Paris Climate Agreement, China agreed to reach peak emissions by 2030; however, if these economists are correct, the country could meet its climate targets much earlier.
“Given the international political and economic structures we now have to manage climate change, I think it will be very influential on others,” Lord Nicholas Stern, an author of the paper from the London School of Economics, told the Guardian.