Foreign Policy Blogs

China’s Time to Act

AFP-Photo-Ed-Jones

AFP-Photo-Ed-Jones

China, the largest energy consumer in the world, which derives more than two-thirds of its energy supply from coal, is choking. Beijing, with a population of around 20 million, increasing energy consumption and more than five million vehicles, is especially is choking.

In mid-January, Beijing officials were forced to conduct an emergency response to hazardous levels of air pollution after three days of excess readings of the Air Quality Index, reaching beyond the permissible level provided by the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau. The air quality rating from U.S. embassy in Beijing ranged between “very unhealthy” to “hazardous” reaching the “beyond index” mark.

Such mundane activities as outdoor sports for school children were called to be stopped since it was deemed unsafe to be outside. In addition, 54 businesses were tasked to reduce their emissions by 30 percent and 28 constructions sites operations were suspended. City authorities cited a lack of wind and foggy conditions as the instigators to escalate the dangerous air pollution.

These actions were taken after the PM2.5, short for fine particulate airborne matter with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns, reached unsafe measures. PM2.5 is produced by combustion, including vehicle exhaust, and by chemical reactions between gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.

The average density of PM2.5 in January was 180 micrograms per cubic meter in Beijing, about 30 percent higher than the same period between 2009 and 2011, according to Chinese official meteorological data.

Putting the situation into perspective, the Peking University’s School of Public Health and Greenpeace released a study, “PM2.5: Measuring the human health and economic impacts on China’s largest cities” which has two stark conclusions:  An estimated 8,572 premature deaths occurred in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an due to the high levels of PM2.5 pollution and contributed a loss of $1.08 billion in economic output. The report suggests limiting coal consumption, retro-fitting current coal plants and eliminating inefficient coal-fired industrial boilers.

These cities are not unique. Tianjin’s municipal government has said it expects to see annual coal consumption rise from 48 million tons to 63 million tons between 2011 and 2015.

Chinese Premier Wen Jibao has recognized the problem stating, “We should take effective measures to speed up the enhancement of our industrial structure, push for energy conservation and build an ecological civilization.” Many Chinese are pleading for a drastic presence for environmental proposals as they live everyday life wearing masks to prevent inhaling toxins.

China has fueled much of its remarkable economic boom by burning cheap coal. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) stated China nearly consumes half of the coal in the world combined, 47 percent, continuing on its century long dramatic climb. And since 2000 the country’s carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal have risen by nearly 170 percent. Over that period, China has tallied 80 percent of the global coal consumption increase and led to the nation to transition from a net exporter of coal to a net importer in 2009.

Before adopting the country’s current five-year plan, running from 2011-2015, the government announced it will aim to cap its total coal energy demand between four billion tons of “standard coal equivalent.” Overall energy growth needs to reduce from 6.6 percent to 3.5 percent to 2015. There are provisions as well for strong government support for solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power as the growth of coal is sought to be reined in. 

Internationally, the nonbinding targets have been viewed largely as aspirational. Officials at China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) do believe that coal consumption will level off below four billion tons and the government will be active to make sure its targets are not blown passed.

Nevertheless, during 2011 coal use increased more than 9 percent. And in 2012 its National Coal Association stated even as coal production declined 4.7 percent, coal consumption topped out at 4.05 billion tons, above the national cap, when imports were added to the picture.

IHS Cera, a global energy research firm, concluded that coal imports have peaked due to increased domestic production and improved transportation networks. Overall, the firm believes coal demand in China will reach its crescendo in 2025 near 5.1 tons. The reduction in imports is likely to adversely affect the economies of its suppliers, such as Australia.

With such an insatiable demand for energy and current air pollution, looking back to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, it is quite impressive how well the city prepared to have a safe environment for athletes and guests. The top down government implemented policy to close construction sites and factories, and to remove 3.3 million vehicles from the road. As a result, levels of PM2.5 dropped 27 percent during the Olympics, according to a study by Peking University.

Since the games, Beijing has initiated some efforts, but clearly not enough, to confront its air pollution troubles, setting a target of retrofitting all of it coal-fired heating furnaces by 2015 with energy efficient measures. 266 coal-fired furnaces have been completed thus far, reducing coal consumption by 500,000 tons, according to a spokesman for the municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment. There are 30 additional furnaces which are anticipated to be completed before the 2015 target.

To return to the PM2.5 levels during the Olympics, an aggressive policy incorporating more robust energy efficiency standards and programs with wider adaption of renewable energies is necessary. Such action can provide a foundation for millions of citizens to have clean air while still enabling new economic opportunities to continue to be presented, leading to a better quality of life.