China’s war on coal pollution
Overview of China’s air quality crisis
China hasn’t always been so mindful of the consequences of air pollution, especially in the heavily populated and industrialized Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Winters in the northeastern urban cluster, which is treated by Chinese authorities as an integrated unit for regulation and development, are especially hard-hitting. That’s because of unfavorable geography and weather patterns that trap smog over the cities, cars, coal-fired residential heating, and above all, steel, aluminium and other industries.
China still leads the world in coal consumption and carbon emissions, but it’s finally serious about shifting to renewable sources and cracking down on the sectors most responsible for its air quality crisis – a trend that has emerged in recent years. China, prompted by growing pressure from environmentally aware citizens, declared its Action Plan on Prevention & Control of Air Pollution in 2013, which is meant to reduce PM2.5 levels (the dangerous particulate matter tied to cancer and respiratory illness) by up to 25 percent by 2020. It took another two years for China to declare the first-ever air quality red alert in Beijing in December 2015, and implement emergency response measures including automobile traffic restrictions and plant production restrictions.
In October 2017, China announced a progressive new plan to cut particulate level matters this winter by 15 percent in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. By November, Beijing’s air quality was better than any on record for the same month, with air pollution levels down by a jaw-dropping 54 percent. That’s been achieved by cutting production at coal-fired steel, aluminium and cement plants or idling them entirely. It’s also the result of a shift toward natural gas heating, although demand caused supply shortages that need to be resolved – a tradeoff for improved air quality, public health and dire carbon-climate impact.
“Good to see sunny blue skies in Beijing!” said Erik Solheim, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, when he arrived in the city in December 2017. The City of Beijing was so proud of his Twitter message they put it front-and-center on the municipal website. The PM2.5 count was down by 13 percent, Solheim said. It’s a real improvement for China, but much more needs to be achieved.
Health and environmental consequences
An estimated 9 million premature deaths, or 16 percent of the global total, were caused in 2015 by air pollution, according to research published in The Lancet in October 2017. For Chinese, that means the air they breathe is shortening their lifespans – by more than three years, one study found – and causing cardiovascular, respiratory and other illnesses, as well as accounting for 1.1 million premature deaths.
A Chinese environmental ministry report found that in 2015, people in 265 of 338 Chinese metropolitan areas breathed air that failed to meet health standards. Environmental impacts of China’s air pollution extends beyond the PM concentrations hazardous to humans and the toxicity to soil. The CO2 emissions from the coal-powered energy responsible for most of it present a climate change challenge. There are less obvious consequences as well: A January 2018 study suggests that China’s reliance on coal causes acid rain that in turn is responsible for massive landslides when layers of rock are exposed to pollution.
Fighting back: Impacts on industry and citizens
Chinese officials developed an aggressive 2017 plan to reduce pollution in 28 northern cities, including Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, and smaller cities in the Shanxi, Shandong and Henan provinces. Beijing promised to close most small-scale polluting businesses, those with licensing issues, and companies without proper emission treatments by the end of October. China’s Ministry of Environment has reached some 80,000 factories with consequences for violating environmental laws in the past year. The crackdown also had shuttered steel, aluminium, concrete and other factories that are heavy coal-using polluters.
Aluminium prices rose by December 2017 as China’s winter production dropped. Alumina refineries and aluminium smelters were required to cut production by 30 percent, while carbon suppliers to those facilities were required to cut by 50 percent if they were environmentally compliant, and completely if not. Similar restrictions affect iron, steel and other sectors as China drives down coal-related pollution.
Also banned are coal-fired heating furnaces in Beijing, Tianjin, Langfang and Baoding during the winter. That’s meant a boost in natural gas production, but also shortages that are forcing some people to use electric heating systems – and that electricity, generated by coal, drives more pollution back into the air. Car exhaust also is carefully monitored, while the port at Tianjin will receive coal only by rail systems.
Greenpeace report on air quality improvement
Additional details in a December 2017 report from Greenpeace show China’s legitimate progress on some measures while noting the challenges that remain. In addition to Beijing’s lowered levels, PM2.5 measured across the region fell by 37 percent, dropping to an average of 67 µg/m3. That’s compared with 108 µg/m3 in November 2017. The coal-burning regions around Beijing have seen a record drop in sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, as analyzed by Greenpeace satellite and air quality measurement data. Even if stronger northern winds helped lower PM 2.5 levels by 20% compared to last year, the measures contained in the winter plan doubled those levels. "The air quality improvement in November in Beijing and its neighboring regions is closely tied to frequent cold fronts with strong wind that blew away the pollutants in the region," Ai Wanxiu, chief expert at the National Climate Center, said recently.
The SO2 levels fell over 50 percent in the Beijing region compared with the same time last year. NO2 levels fell 10 percent in Hebei province, and 15 percent in the chronically toxic steel city of Tangshan.
That’s been achieved through more aggressive enforcement of environmental regulations, with some 4,000 inspections in which 70 percent of all facilities were cited for some type of pollution violation.
On the other hand, some industrial cities saw pollution levels rise ahead of the winter restrictions and thus already fell short of their targets for the winter. China also approved some restarts of coal-fired facilities to cope with winter heating demand and allowed areas without alternatives to use coal.
But these successes should not be taken for granted: smog tends to worsen between December and February, and Beijing’s heavily industrialized environs remain a hotspot for pollution. If the government is indeed serious about improving air quality levels, the actions taken so far should be just the beginning.
Future trends away from coal sources
China’s success in cutting air pollution and carbon emissions by slashing coal use remains to be seen, especially with demand exceeding supply for the natural gas alternative in the short term. More promising in the move away from coal is China’s ramped-up commitment to renewable energy. The country has more solar capacity than any other in the world and plans to invest at least $361 billion in renewables by 2020. The International Energy Agency says China dominates the renewable market.
In some cases, China is even using its abandoned coal mines to build floating solar farms. At Huainan, one such facility on a lake in a collapsed mine will power 94,000 homes when it goes online in May 2018. It’s a perfect metaphor for how China seeks to build a new energy future to replace the old, and end its reliance on coal.
The bottom line is that while China’s CO2 emissions growth rate has slowed down, they still expanded by +3.5% in 2017 (versus an average of +3.8%/year between 2007 and 2016). According to estimates published by Earth System Science Data in the Global Carbon Budget 2017, China’s coal consumption grew by 3%, oil by 5% and natural gas by 11.7%, while cement production declined by 0.5%. Interestingly enough, China’s per-capita CO2 emissions were 2.0 tC/person, far behind the U.S’ 4.5tC/person, but above the EU28 average of 1.9tC/person.