False Green Prophet?
What’s Dirtier Than Coal and Is Gaining Popularity in China?

No, that isn’t the start to a riddle, but a question that itself raises doubts about Beijing’s newfound green motivations. The Christian Science Monitor reports on a particularly dirty fossil fuel that’s being increasingly used in China:

Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a byproduct of petroleum refining that contains over 90 percent carbon and is high in thermal value. Chinese companies in various industries have increasingly turned to it since 2006, when the country experienced a fuel shortage. […]

“In China, the petcoke is little known to most of the statistics and even to the energy sector itself, so we cannot find the official data of the petcoke consumption in the national statistics book,” Wang Tao, resident scholar at Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said in a Wednesday discussion at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They don’t even have the category of petcoke until 2010.”

The United States, China’s partner in its joint statement outlining emissions reductions targets last November, is the predominant exporter of petcoke for China, and while data for China’s own usage are scarce, our numbers show Beijing bought more than 10 times as many barrels last year as compared to 2008.

This doesn’t doom China to a forever smog-covered future, but it does remind us that a countervailing narrative to that apocalyptic vision—that Beijing has suddenly turned over a verdant green leaf out of some deep appreciation for natural beauty—is equally specious. China’s target setting last fall was a savvy PR move, as the CCP saw a way to wrap national security concerns, like the reduction of dependence on foreign energy sources or growing social unrest over endemic urban smog, in green platitudes. But if and when Beijing moves to reduce its imports of American petcoke, it won’t be because it yearns to live more fully in harmony with Mother Earth, but rather because it wants to cut reliance on an American energy supply.

Similarly, China’s plan to rapidly build out its nuclear energy industry has much more to do with energy security than eco-idealism. Breathless green observers would do well to keep those motivations in mind, as they’re a big reason why world’s nations won’t sign on to a binding international treaty in Paris this December.

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