Until recently, that is. A remarkable story appeared in Reuters the other day, with equally remarkable photos showing queues of coal-laden trucks up to 80 miles in length waited to cross the border into China. You know what it’s like to be at the airport, arriving home on an international flight at the same time as three others, waiting to clear customs? The Mongolian wait is somewhat worse. Truck drivers wait in line for up to a week. Imagine the fate that would befall any poor tree along the route as all those bursting bladders sought even the slightest geographical sanctuary. That might explain why there are none.
The backlog at the border crossing is due to several factors. Foremost is strong Chinese demand for coal, combined with shrinking supplies as China shuts mines to help curb pollution. Imports of North Korean coal used to help but are being curtailed because of that chubby little guy with the rockets and the totally bogus fan club.
So clearly the Chinese have a problem. Well I suppose they have countless problems, but two are front and center; one is that they are mildly panicked as to how to heat their country this winter, as witnessed by 80 mile long coal truck convoys, and the other is that they have stifling pollution that is unsustainable.
The driver of these two problems can be succinctly summarized in one big fat statistic: coal accounts for 62 percent of China’s energy consumption. Relax, it could be worse, fifteen years ago it was 74 percent.
Snapping into action, the Chinese government showed an uncanny knack for emulating their attention-addled political counterparts in the west by mustering the troops and charging off in the wrong direction. A few months ago China announced plans to ban gasoline and diesel cars. It’s all the rage now; governments are falling over themselves to make toothless symbolic gestures that excite the energy-ignorant. The idea is not crazy when applied to urban areas where electric vehicles make all sorts of sense, but national strategies like that are as pointless as declaring an end to jaywalking.
The juxtaposition of China’s coal habit – far and away the biggest global greenhouse gas emissions problem – with its anti-engine mandate is laughable. Or it would be if it didn’t impact the rest of us. China can ban spoons for all I care, but because it won’t tackle the coal issue in a major way means that climate accountants keep taking out their frustrations on open economies like ours.
Ask any eco-warrior around, such as fact-challenged shriekers like Tzeporah Berman what the biggest environmental problem in the world is and they inevitably point to the Canadian oil sands. The oil sands create enough fuel for the entire nation and still only produce fractions of a percent of global GHG, whereas Chinese coal consumption creates something like 20 percent. The Chinese situation is so immense that a 2015 report in the New York Times indicated China had actually been recently burning approximately 17 percent more coal than they’d admitted. This undisclosed amount is the equivalent of the entire GHG emissions of Germany for a year. Oops. On the bright side, don’t lose any sleep if you don’t get those solar panels up until next weekend.
And that’s the annoying part – the lengths to which the rest of us have to go, and the expense, to tackle an insignificant portion of the problem. Norway mandates that their autos will in the future be all electric; who cares? The country has 2.6 million vehicles in total and a realistic plan to have maybe half of them electric. The half that go electric will largely replace small fuel-efficient cars. The GHG emitted by that endless fleet of Mongolian coal trucks and their mad-eyed drivers probably offsets the hundreds of millions Norway pumped into its subsidies and programs.
There is an epic inefficiency being foisted on developed nations. It’s not an absolute dollar inefficiency that’s the problem; developed nations can afford the luxury of pursuing green energy (to a certain degree). It is inefficiency in achieving an objective. A dollar spent in North America to limit GHG emissions would go twenty times as far in China. Our regimes force us to spend the money on trifles such as Alberta closing five coal fired power plants at exactly the same time that Chinese companies are building 700 of them, and a total of 1,600 are under construction globally.
In a rare burst of intelligence, 15-20 countries formed an alliance to end coal usage by 2030. Now we’re getting somewhere. Stop chasing that cow around because of its methane emissions and deal with the real problem. Except…the biggest coal users refused to sign on (in case you’re wondering – China, Russia, the United States and…Germany? Yes, Germany, flag-bearer for renewable energy, is one of the largest consumers of coal. It’s hard to see the coal plants under all the solar panels, but they’re there.).
And so it goes. The global engines of economic growth that can afford it are saddled with climactic burdens that approximate a donkey carrying a Volkswagen, while the true problem children like China pump out GHG at a rate that dwarfs anyone else’s because they simply need to for survival. That’s not knocking the Chinese, that’s the reality of keeping over a billion people fed and heated.
The Paris Climate Accord could have had a major impact on reducing GHG emissions if that were the true target (the output reeked of an injection of societal rebalancing). Here’s how: instead of instructing every nation to spend vast sums to proportionately reduce emissions, have those same funds be channeled to the biggest polluters. Instead of Norway spending a bunch of money to reduce its inconsequential footprint, have that money go to building natural gas pipelines in China which would have ten times the impact on the environment. It doesn’t even have to be fossil-fuel derived natural gas; systems that harvested China’s vast piles of garbage would do wonders as well.
That concept of course would be obvious to anyone who spent an hour looking at the problem though, so there must be other reasons why governments pursue policies that miss the mark so wildly. The popularity contest that is politics often has unintended consequences. It’s too bad that sometimes they are really really bad.