China’s rapid industrialization the past generation has caused it to become the world’s leading carbon emitter, much to the chagrin of the rest of the world. Of course, criticisms that the Middle Kingdom has lagged when it comes to fighting climate change is often unfair: after all, it has become the world’s factory and produces goods that are shipped to every corner of the planet. While China’s enhanced global stature and growing middle class are the result of China’s economic transformation, there has also been a huge human cost: its air pollution has become so horrid that some scientists have described as its effects as a “nuclear winter.”
Much of the smog has been due to China’s reliance on coal. The Chinese government has proposed several new national policies to reduce coal use in the coming decades, and clearly the time to start was many yesterdays ago. According to a report drafted by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) and World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), a robust coal cap policy could save 49,000 lives and $6.2 billion in 2020, with even more lives, and money, saved through 2050.
For years coal has comprised 70% of China’s power production—developed countries on average source coal for 20% for their electricity needs. To put the country’s reliance on coal in context, in 2013, just over half of the world’s coal consumption occurred in China alone. And as more countries shifted their manufacturing operations to China, the result has been even more coal production, with definite ties to the country’s increasing air pollution. Before 2003, China on average had about nine “smog days” (pollution above emergency levels) a year. That figure steadily increased to approximately 12 to 20 days a year until 2013, when China suffered 36 smog days.
What has been especially dangerous to China’s citizens is that the burning of coal is tied to the high levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which are small enough to enter the lungs and into the bloodstream) in cities across the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a concentration of no more than 25 PM2.5 to be the maximum safe level. Last year in Beijing, that level reached as high as 505 PM2.5. The “airpocalypse” has caused schools and airports to close, local officials to enact traffic restrictions, and of course, a surge in sales of face masks, many of them fashionable.
But for what the NRDC estimates to be over 700,000 deaths in 2012 through China that were related to air pollution, there is hardly anything cute about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease, strokes, or lunch cancer. To that end, since 2013, the NRDC and WWF have spearheaded the China Coal Cap Project, which has brought together many stakeholders across Chinese society in a quest to reduce the country’s ravenous consumption of coal. A steady decrease in annual coal use will not only decrease deaths and costs related to its effects, but also create economic benefits. The NRDC has suggested new research and the scale of energy-efficient technologies could result in over one million new clean technology jobs throughout China by 2020.
China is already on the path towards cleaning up its energy portfolio. Solar power has made huge gains in recent years, which should hardly be a surprise since it is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. But more of those panels are staying in the country, as the annual amount of installed solar power generation keeps increasing annually. As of this spring, power purchase agreements are also now available to consumers, which could help solar accelerate at an even faster pace. Wind power is also enjoying a surge as well in the world’s most populous country: in 2014, the amount of installed offshore wind power increased over the previous year by almost fivefold.
Those recent developments in renewables, however, are only token efforts when considering the degree to which coal is wrecking China’s public health system while threatening the economy’s long term viability. For the country’s next five-year plan, which starts next year, the NRDC and WWF suggests the central government does even more to shift away from coal in the coming decade. The NGOs suggest several measures: taxes on carbon, natural resources and environmentally polluting industries; an actual nationwide coal cap policy with measurable goals; fiscal policies that will allow the coal industry to restructure; the creation of programs that will allow employees within the sector to find new employment; and the aggressive promotion of renewable energy technologies. All of these policies, according to the NRDC and WWF, are necessary in order for China to reverse its destructive course, revive its cities and improve the health of its people.
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