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China Tackling Air Pollution, But Faces Big Challenges

China's Air Pollution, Out of Hand
China’s Air Pollution, Out of Hand

China’s fast economic growth has been backed up by fast and dirty coal power plants to meet new energy requirements of the rapidly expanding industrial and commercial sectors. The resulting air pollution has clouded the skies over many Chinese cities.

Aside from the greenhouse gas emissions that we already know are contributing to climate change, coal plants, mills, and smelters are contributing to air pollution on a grand scale. For example, air pollution in Hong Kong is so bad that elderly and children are encouraged to stay indoors on some days. Some reports suggest that up to 40% of premature deaths in that city are due to air-pollution-induced respiratory diseases and failure due, in no small part, to smog-emitting vehicles, industry, and coal power plants that provide 67% of China’s electricity.

China’s status quo, growth-at-any-cost, economic model has been disastrous to the environment and public health. China is taking steps to tackle air pollution at the source, targeting industries that burn coal, some of them illegal, but seems to be facing an uphill battle. Officially, China plans to boost the implementation of natural gas and nuclear power, cutting coal burning, but some groups suggest that the plans are too weak and have too many loopholes.

For example, China wants to reduce coal consumption to under 65% by 2017. That’s it, just two or three percent reduction? Iron, steel, and aluminum smelting is another industry that China wants to address, the second-biggest industrial coal consumer, after coal power plants, in the nation and one of the least-regulated. Regulators don’t seem intent on giving their plans any teeth. For example, analyst Zhu Shiwei notes, “For aluminum, a lot of the production was never approved by state government but was haphazardly approved by local governments, so what has already come online cannot be reversed.” Cannot be reversed?

One of the potential loopholes has to do with individual provinces reducing coal consumption. For example, coastal provinces Hebei, Beijing, Shandong, and Jiangsu are expected to cut their coal consumption by millions of tons in the coming years. Thanks to the power grid, these coastal provinces might actually move coal consumption to inland provinces, who haven’t made such promises, and won’t be required by the government, to reduce coal consumption.

If China is really going to get a handle on its air pollution problem, it’ll have to implement stricter measures.

Image © Reuters/Jason Lee

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