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The Price of Coal in China

Peter Lehner

Posted January 18, 2013

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Last Saturday an air pollution monitor atop the U.S. Embassy in Beijing rated the pollution index at a shocking 755--on a scale of 0 to 500. (The EPA categorizes pollution levels over 300 as "hazardous.") A Time reporter wrote that the view from her 16th floor Beijing apartment was "akin to a sandstorm in Afghanistan." Even China's official People's Daily ran a front-page story on the appalling haze, calling it a "suffocating siege." My Beijing colleague Jingjing Qian said that mai, or smog, once a rarely-used word in Chinese, has been the talk of the town.

 Anthony Suen - DSC07954 CCTV building.jpeg

CCTV building, Beijing (courtesy Anthony Suen)

Dozens of cities in eastern China reported record-breaking levels of pollution last week. Children stayed indoors, while others only ventured out in masks. During the smog's peak, hospitals reported an uptick in patients with respiratory and heart complaints. This NASA satellite photo, in which grayish-brown smog completely blots out the cities of Beijing and neighboring Tianjin, was taken after the pollution began to dissipate.


NASA Earth Observatory

Weather conditions certainly played a role in trapping the smog above Beijing's flat plain, but the source of the pollution itself is entirely human--created, in large part, by the burning of coal. Since my last visit to China, when the never-ending haze left a metallic taste in my mouth, the Chinese government has taken steps to cut power plant pollution, improve environmental monitoring, and strengthen the transparency of environmental information. This newfound transparency has helped fuel the unprecedented, and largely critical, coverage on the smog by the Chinese media.

All this is important progress. But to prevent the occurrence of another "airpocalypse" in China, this transparency needs to spark more aggressive action to curb air pollution from coal, cars, and factories. China needs to continue to strengthen and monitor emissions standards for power plants and industrial facilities, accelerate the shift away from polluting industries, expand public transit and walkability in cities, and take steps to clean up its dirty diesel trucks and buses, which contribute huge quantities of particulate soot to Beijing's air. And possibly the most critical step China can take to clear its air will be to put a cap on the amount of coal it burns.

In 2011, China consumed 3.6 billion tons of coal--half the world's total consumption. And that number continues to rise. Significant progress on energy efficiency (NRDC has been working on this for more than a decade in China) and the expansion of renewable energy could reduce coal's share of total energy consumption by as much as 10 percent by 2020, according to an LBNL study. But total energy use in China is still on the upswing, which means total coal consumption--and emissions--will also rise.  

Continuing to burn billions of tons of coal each year, without adequate pollution controls, endangers not only the health of Chinese citizens, but also the health of the planet. Coal is a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists warn that without effective, global action to curb this pollution, we are propelling ourselves toward catastrophic climate change. China, by virtue of its size and the rapid increase in its emissions from coal, can play an important global role in reducing the risk of severe climate impacts--and improve its own local air quality-- by moving quickly to reduce its reliance on coal.

China's CO2 emissions rose by about 9 percent in 2011, according to the IEA, largely due to increasing coal consumption. Continued growth at this pace will make it very difficult to keep global warming in check, especially as the world struggles to find ways to keep the warming needle under 2 degrees Celsius, the point beyond which, scientists say, we risk extreme environmental and societal disruption.

That's a fairly dire outcome. But no amount of scientific modeling is as compelling as a thick blanket of brown, soupy air smothering your capital; or the voice of your people who are tired of getting sick from pollution. This could be China's Cuyahoga moment: when an instance of pollution so severe, like the river that caught fire outside Cleveland in 1969, moves the people, and the government, to action. China has set soft targets for coal consumption in the past, but these are routinely, and overwhelmingly, exceeded. By setting a mandatory, enforceable cap on coal, China can make its air and water cleaner and its people healthier. It can also help the world steer clear of climate disaster.

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Memphs EddyJan 18 2013 10:12 AM

So Smog Who Cares
I lived in China. Anyone whom has lived there knows lung problems and smog are no big deal.
Chongqing Power plants are coal fired the entire town is covered in coal dust. Eyes burn lungs hurt. I could see coal fired power plant smoke stacks bellowing out right in center of the city. No big deal. When you see everyone and I mean millions wearing white surgical masks cycling around the city.
Every morning hords of workers dusting off hotel surfaces. Black smoke seaping thru windows and doors into your room. China health care non existant. Tea and hot and cold herbs cure everything. Why would you ever concern your self with Health care when you have millions standing in line to fill the jobs of the sick.
Smog is no big deal. I had lung problem for 6 months when I returned to the states.
Now for the odd thing I liked living in China

alexander fordJan 18 2013 10:43 AM

i cant tell if your being sarcastic or not, i mean six month is along time to have a lung problem and the burning eyes and lungs sounds pretty bad, people dying early,i guess you are being, though there are some crazy people online who think money is more importatn that people.

Evan W. LipsteinJan 18 2013 04:04 PM

The pollution in Beijing can be associated with many factors, however airborne particulate matter also know as PM can be directly attributed to coal burning. The PM is unburned carbon that is wasted and flies out the smokestacks as black smoke, the black portion is the unburned carbon or wasted coal that did not burn.

Our company promotes a combustion catalyst called CC-88. CC-88 helps lessen the unburned carbon helping to complete the combustion of coal.

It should be pointed out that using CC-88 will also reduce SO3, which, often mixes with the moisture in flue gases and produces sulfuric acid which mixes with clouds moisture and rains down as acid rain. Acid rain is killing fish in rivers and reducing crop yields.

Most experts will agree that coal is expected to be the main source of electricity for many years to come. China, India, and the other Asian countries are beginning to recognize an immediate need to clean up their coal-fired power plants and the millions of factories that burn coal, to prevent pollution levels soaring to unacceptable levels both at home and around the globe.

Asia Coal Catalyst Company will be maintaining its leadership in coal catalyst technology with the development of new catalysts to address incomplete combustion and environmental issues.

Anna FrizenhimerJan 18 2013 07:52 PM

O M G! Amazing how bad it is!

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