China Cuts Coal Consumption

People visit the Olympic Park amid thick haze in Beijing

The Olympic Park in Bejing, obscured by smog (photo cr Reuters)

China is now expanding bans on burning coal so that the ban applies not only to city centers but to China’s sprawling suburbia as well.

Smog in the area is an environmental health concern as much as an emissions nightmare. Urban residents in China account for more than half of the country’s sizable population, yet of those city dwellers only around one percent of them live in areas where air quality is regularly within safe particulate counts. Additionally, recent data has shown that during the Beijing summer Olympics, when air pollution emissions were strictly enforced,  fetal health in the area improved—babies born in the period following the Olympics had higher, healthier average birthrates.

The smog also is at times so thick that it is close to a “nuclear winter”—blocking out sunlight so that crops cannot photosynthesize, prompting fears over economic losses and food insecurity. . Sometimes the particulate count reaches 20X the WHO guidelines for air quality, and schools are closed to keep citizens inside, to try to mitigate the health risks.

The cuts in coal use in the suburbs are aiming to cut consumption of coal by 80 million tons of coal by 2017 with a reduction of over 160 million tonnes by 2020. (China’s consumes about 3.7 billion tons of coal annually, which accounts for two thirds of China’s annual energy use.) On whole, China aims to cut their current energy use by three percent in the next two years, and cap coal at sixty five percent of China’s total energy use by 2017.

The Forbidden City in Beijing under a haze of smog (photo cr.

The Forbidden City in Beijing under a haze of smog (photo cr.

The new regulations will target industrial coal-powered boilers, all of which will be required to switch from high-sulfur, high emitting coal, to natural gas, “clean coal” or other “alternative fuels that will be subsidized by the government. However, the inclusion of clean coal is problematic, as “clean coal”, which uses processing methods or “scrubbers” to reduce emissions, does not address environmental degradation that originates in the extraction process. So though this measure will reduce smog and airborne pollution, as well as carbon dioxide emissions from the poorest quality coal, issues of land acquisition and water and soil contamination will not really be addressed here.

However, even with the inclusion of “clean coal”, there are signs that China’s energy demand is on the wane. In 2014, China saw a decline in coal use for the first time in years, of around three percent from the previous year. China has invested close to 90 billion dollars in renewable energy, and is has of the fastest-growing solar industry in the world. Meanwhile, Shenhua Energy Company, China’s largest coal producer and the second largest coal producer in the world, has projected a ten percent decline in their domestic sales for 2015, suggesting China’s movement away from coal is swiftly gaining momentum.