China’s Coming War on Coal

September 17, 2013

A primary denialist talking point is that any attempts by the US and Europe to address climate change are doomed to failure, because China and India will continue to build their economies on fossil fuels, and wipe out any gains that might be made.
But reality intrudes. Any idea that China can blindly follow US development models is faulty.


BEIJING — Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

The data on which the analysis is based was first presented in the ambitious 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, which was published in December in The Lancet, a British medical journal. The authors decided to break out numbers for specific countries and present the findings at international conferences. The China statistics were offered at a forum in Beijing on Sunday.

“We have been rolling out the India- and China-specific numbers, as they speak more directly to national leaders than regional numbers,” said Robert O’Keefe, the vice president of the Health Effects Institute, a research organization that is helping to present the study. The organization is partly financed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the global motor vehicle industry.

What the researchers called “ambient particulate matter pollution” was the fourth-leading risk factor for deaths in China in 2010, behind dietary risks, high blood pressure and smoking. Air pollution ranked seventh on the worldwide list of risk factors, contributing to 3.2 million deaths in 2010.

By comparison with China, India, which also has densely populated cities grappling with similar levels of pollution, had 620,000 premature deaths in 2010 because of outdoor air pollution, the study found. That was deemed to be the sixth most common killer in South Asia.

A recent item on public radio’s  Marketplace report underlines the issue – in an interview with David Brancaccio, Shaun Rein, Managing Director of the China Market Research Group pointed out that pollution is currently THE biggest problem in the Chinese economy.

“…the biggest fear or frustration in life today is the pollution levels in China.  A lot of consumers are saying, “Who cares if I have a great job? Who cares if I can buy a Louis Vitton bag, if the air and water is killing my family?”

Pollution is the biggest problem facing that’s China’s government today, and they really need to do a better crackdown on it, otherwise they’re going to face serious social instability going forward.”

An open ended, unlimited plan for coal development in China is not only a health problem –   there are physical limits to what is possible, and one of the hardest and most critical is the availability of water.


At first glance, Daliuta in northern China appears to have a river running through it. A closer look reveals the stretch of water in the center is a pond, dammed at both ends. Beyond the barriers, the Wulanmulun’s bed is dry.

Daliuta in Shaanxi province sits on top of the world’s biggest underground coal mine, which requires millions of liters of water a day for extracting, washing and processing the fuel. The town is the epicenter of a looming collision between China’s increasingly scarce supplies of water and its plan to power economic growth with coal.

China has about 1,730 cubic meters of fresh water per person, close to the 1,700 cubic meter-level the UN deems “stressed.” The situation is worse in the north, where half China’s people, most of its coal and only 20 percent of its water are located.

Shanxi — the nation’s biggest coal base, with about 28 percent of production — has per capita water resources of 347 cubic meters, less than the Middle Eastern nation of Oman. Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi, which together contribute 40 percent of coal output, have less than 1,700 cubic meters per person.

A government plan to boost the coal industry and build more power plants near mines will lift industrial demand for water in Inner Mongolia 141 percent by 2015 from 2010, causing aquifers to dry up and deserts to expand, according to Greenpeace and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural Resources. About 28,000 rivers have vanished since 1990, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and National Bureau of Statistics.

Ok, back up the tape. Let me hear that again.

About 28,000 rivers have vanished since 1990, according to the Ministry of Water Resources and National Bureau of Statistics.

That’s why this news item from the other day caught my eye.

ABC News:

China announced Thursday that it will ban new coal-fired power plants in three key industrial regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in its latest bid to combat the country’s notorious air pollution.

The action plan from the State Council, China’s Cabinet, also aims to cut coal’s share of the country’s total primary energy use to below 65 percent by 2017 and increase the share of nuclear power, natural gas and renewable energy. According to Chinese government statistics, coal consumption accounted for 68.4 percent of total energy use in 2011.

New coal-fired power plants will be banned for new projects in the region surrounding Beijing, in the Yangtze Delta region near Shanghai and in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province, the State Council said.

The government has come under increasing pressure from the growing middle class to clean up the country’s air pollution, much of which comes from the burning of coal.

The State Council said the country’s air pollution situation is “grim” and is “harming people’s health and affecting social harmony and stability.” The action plan calls for the density of fine particulate matter — a gauge of air pollution — in Beijing to drop by 25 percent by 2017 from 2012 levels and by at least 10 percent in cities nationally.

An expert quoted in the ABC article opines that China’s coal consumption, on paper, may be likely to increase – but the mere fact that the government is openly beginning a process to rein in what has formerly been touted as the road to modernization and  industrialization is extremely telling.
This is just the beginning – as China continues to make progress in renewable energy, the same kind of inexorable economic logic that is beginning to blow up power production models in the west, will more and more take hold in the East.

23 Responses to “China’s Coming War on Coal”

  1. […] As reported here, more signs that China’s coal fired party is drawing to a close – as critical air pollution and water shortages – as well as climate concerns, mount. […]

  2. […] reported, hopefully, that China is moving quickly on renewables, and taking a serious look at reducing air pollution […]

  3. […] On September 17, 2013, I posted this under the title “China’s Coming War on Coal”, […]

  4. […] situation is a key driver behind the recent agreement with the US to limit greenhouse gases. It is not an option, a nice idea, or a […]

  5. […] water for instance. Half of China’s rivers — about 28,000 — have vanished since 1990. China also has about 1,730 cubic meters of fresh water per person, just above the 1,700 cubic […]

  6. […] wrote. Take water for instance. Half of China’s rivers — about 28,000 — have vanished since 1990. China also has about 1,730 cubic meters of fresh water per person, just above the 1,700 cubic […]

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