Beijing attempts to tackle air pollution from coal plants
In a matter of weeks, Beijing has made a series of announcements to show its dedication to reducing the harmful effects of coal-fired thermal energy.
On July 23rd 2014, Xinhua News Agency announced that four large coal-fired power plants in Beijing will close before 2016, with Gaojing Thermal Power Plant’s six 100MW units shut down already. The central Chinese government reported that the city aims to reduce dependency on coal by 2.6 million tons by the end of 2014, and by an additional 6.6 million tons by 2016 (a total of 9.2 million tons). On August 4th 2014, it was announced on Beijing’s Municipal Environmental Protection website that the city is aiming to be coal-free by 2020. Following this, on August 6th, the government announced a ban on coal imports with a high ash and sulphur content to come into effect on September 1st.
Additionally, in June, Greenpeace East Asia reported that six Chinese provinces and two regions have promised to reduce total coal consumption, and another two provinces have set a goal of controlling the growth rate within 2% by the end of 2017. Notably, most of them are located in East China, and altogether these provinces and regions account for 44% of national coal use. These local policies are coherent with national goals from 2015, namely replacing coal with natural gas and non-fossil energy in electricity generation, cutting the percentage of coal in total energy consumption to less than 65% by 2017. By 2020, two of the main targets are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40-50% of GDP by 2005 levels, and to increase the percentage of non-fossil energy in primary energy to 15%. In the long term, China aims to reduce the percentage of coal-fired power generation to 35-40% by 2050.
However, despite these local and national policies, according to Greenpeace East Asia, currently China is building coal-fired power plants at an average speed of one per week. In the meantime, another media organisation also reported on July 30th that the country plans to build 50 new coal gasification plants, primarily in northwestern China, away from big cities like Beijing. Greenpeace East Asia reported that this will produce an approximate equivalent of 1/8 of China’s emissions from 2011 – 1.1 billion tons of CO2 a year. Despite Beijing’s promise to end ties with coal, China’s plan to build new coal gasification plants outside Beijing and other large cities merely shifts pollution to other areas. To make matters worse, building gasification plants, which are quite water-intensive, may put further pressure on water security problems in the area.
In order to supply energy to a population of over 1 billion, China imported a record 330 million tons of coal in 2013, though according to the research of Carbon Tracker, these imports are predicted to decrease. On the one hand, Chinese thermal coal demand is estimated to reach a cap between 2015 and 2030; on the other hand, China is trying to expand domestic coal supply. These trends may further enlarge over-supply in the international market, especially from Australia and Indonesia.
Overall, burning coal of any grade will result in large amounts of toxic emissions. According to the official Xinhua News Agency, coal is the source of 22% of fine particles in Beijing’s air. The side-effects of China’s seemingly never-ending addiction to coal is evident as polluted cities put out daily smog alerts to warn citizens.
GEI, 4th Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum, October 1-3, 2014.
Zhou, Weisheng;, Proposal on a Low-carbon Community in East Asia and Actions, on Kyoto International Environment Symposium, November 5, 2014