China’s air pollution: a four-letter word

Coal.

After it emerged from the Communist blackout during the 1970s, China prospered by building export industries, largely powered by coal. In earlier times, China was only a modest consumer of energy. Recent governments promoted heavy industry–including metals and other mineral products–exploiting the country’s largest energy resource. Each year since 2010, China consumed more coal than all the rest of the world.

Coal consumption in China and elsewhere

ChinaCoal1965-2016

Source: BP Review of World Energy, 2017

Communist emperor Hu Jintao (2003-2013) built coal-fired electricity plants, blast furnaces, smelters, cement kilns and pottery ovens, never seeming to look back. His regime turned China into the world’s Coal Empire and sent its capital into a new Dark Age. Beijing, along with much of northeast China, has been suffering from massive air pollution–comparable to Pittsburgh at its worst in the 1940s.

As angry protests grew, successor Xi Jinping feared losing the Mandate of Heaven and started to tamp down some of the coal burning. Four years later, northeast China showed little air-quality improvement. That is hardly surprising, since Chinese coal consumption, after growing by a factor of about 2-1/2 over the ten years of Communist emperor Hu, shrank only about two percent during the first four years of Xi.

Propaganda: Government media in China often tout national progress in renewable energy: a government subsidized solar-panel industry and the growth of wind farms. However, modest growth in solar and wind energy has been swamped by surging outputs from coal-fired power plants.

Recently the independent TMT Post (Telecommunications, Media and Technology, based in Beijing) reported in Chinese about plans to replace conventionally fueled cars with electric vehicles, citing a speech by Xin Guobin, China’s Vice Minister of Industry. As electricity is actually generated in China, using it to power vehicles becomes more of an environmental threat than burning gasoline.

For the same amount of mechanical energy, both the toxic and the greenhouse gas emissions are higher. A few years ago, some Chinese engineers spoke hopefully about cleaner and more efficient generating plants, but high costs made them a small element in the power industry. Recently, air pollution–darkening the skies–was reported as causing up to 35-percent losses at Chinese solar farms.

Death by air: China’s air pollution from coal is causing more than a quarter million premature deaths a year, as reported in the New York Times. Economist Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago and four other academics recently found that in the northeast provinces of Shanxi and Hebei air pollution from burning coal has shortened life expectancy by three years.

So far the Xi regime failed to make a significant difference. After enforcing some restrictions on coal for a couple of years, reports of lower economic growth led to retrenchment. Initiatives to switch from coal to natural gas made minimal progress, because China lacks gas reserves and infrastructure to transport gas. In rural areas, many Chinese are reported to defy regulations and burn coal and waste wood for home heating.

China’s choices are economic. There is no practical way to reconcile headlong growth fueled by coal with good air quality and normal life expectancy. It will be one or the other. If air quality gets substantial improvement–no matter what combination of strategies might be employed–the Chinese economy will slow down in order to pay for it.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 8, 2018


Zhou Chen, Li Rongde and Wu Xiao, Thousands in rural China secretly burn coal as gas prices soar, Caixin Global (Beijing), December 8, 2017 (in English)

Unattributed, China does U-turn on coal ban to avert heating crisis, BBC (UK), December 8, 2017

Muyu Xu and Dominique Patton, North China air quality shows no improvement, Reuters (UK), October 28, 2017

Joshua S. Hill, Severe Chinese air pollution cuts solar energy potential as much as 35 percent, Clean Technica, October 24, 2017

Chinese coal-fired electricity generation expected to flatten as mix shifts to renewables, U.S. Energy Information Administration, September 27, 2017

Vicki Ekstrom High, Air pollution cuts three years off lifespans in northern China, University of Chicago News, September 11, 2017

Unattributed, Vice Minister of Industry Xin Guobin: China is studying traditional-fuel vehicle timetable, TMT Post (Beijing), September 9, 2017 (in Chinese)

Statistical review of world energy, British Petroleum (UK), June, 2017

Edward Wong, Study finds coal burning causing the most air-pollution deaths in China, New York Times, August 17, 2016

Jake Spring, In coal-powered China, electric car surge fuels fear of worsening smog, Reuters (UK), January 27, 2016

Matt Sheehan, Power politics behind China’s climate pledge, Huffington Post, November 14, 2014

David Stanway, Pollution worst on record in Beijing, Reuters (UK), January 12, 2013

Anders Norbom Walløe, The Mandate of Heaven: Why is the Chinese Communist Party still in control of China?, University of Oslo, 2012

Jonathan Watts, Two faces of China’s giant coal industry, Manchester Guardian (UK), November 15, 2009

Craig Bolon, China’s influence on nuclear power, Brookline Beacon, September 9, 2016

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