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. ahaveland Says:

    Peter, take a look at this – Senator Sheldon Whitehouse returned from China with news that they are going to spend 475 billion dollars, yes, almost half a trillion dollars by 2015 to clean up their act and invest in renewable energies.

    Ironic, that China’s surplus came from the West’s frenzy to buy cheap stuff, exploit lax environmental regulations, translocate their emissions, make short term profits for a few, while emptying their economies at the same time.

    Now China will hang the West with their own rope.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      42nd time??
      Was that a jab at the Teapublicans and their pointless Repeal Obamacare votes?

      • ahaveland Says:

        If he does this weekly, and the Republicans do the Repeal Obamacare vote weekly, then seems to me there’s a reasonable chance they’ll have happened a similar number of times, assuming they started at roughly the same time.
        I’ve watched a lot of his other presentations, and they’re good, and appallingly underwatched.

    • andrewfez Says:

      How much of that 475 billion is going to go into natural gas and fracking?

      It’s my understanding these guys are missing good energy efficiency opportunities in their quest to get big quick. You’d think central planning would want 1 efficient ghost city, instead of 2 American ghost cities, seeing as how the folks that are supposed to come live there are the $4000/yr income crowd, who ain’t gotta lot to spend on a/c and heat. Maybe they’re hoping for some serious wage inflation near the bottom – they do have a big middle class boom happening. Or maybe they think a dollar spent on energy is just as good as one spent on some other consumable item – it all helps growth metrics.

  2. junkdrawer88 Says:

    And then we’ll find out how much the Chinese/Indian coal pollution has been masking the full-on horror of 400 ppm CO2.

    Obligatory Link:

    Live Science Experiments sure are exciting, huh?

  3. astrostevo Says:

    Great to hear and learn this, cheers.

    Over here in Oz the whole “China’s making our efforts pointless and silly” canard has long been a Denialist staple and I’ve often wished you’d do a clip on it (Hint, hint!) – I call it the “Blame China syndrome!” (Feel free to use that line if it helps too! 😉

    • redskylite Says:

      Yes cheers – Same thing in my country (N.Z) “China Syndrome” rears its head, I really hope that China do provide clear leadership and direction, they are well poised to do so. We might see significant advances. At least they are not hindered by left – right political swings and U turns (although internal politics may bubble away under the table).

  4. […] China s Coming War on Coal10 (Climate Crocks): 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. […]

  5. MorinMoss Says:

    The 1st two paragraphs of the Bloomberg excerpt are repeated.

  6. Bruce Miller Says:

    For a video on China’s future Energy Plan see: ‎Kun Chen from Chinese Academy of Sciences on China Thorium – America cannot break from the 1950’s “Secret Enriched Uranium” reactor styles as found at Fuckoshima, but China has a Thorium Pebble Bed Gas reactor up and running.

  7. MorinMoss Says:

    China passed regulations governing power plant emissions as stringent as any in the West and are not grandfathering any plants.
    All plants must conform by 2.5 yrs from Jan 1st, 2012 – no later than Summer 2014.

    So, it’s clean up or clear out – in a country that has teeth and claws when it comes to enforcement.

  8. and this:
    Environmental Concerns on the Rise in China | Pew Global Attitudes Project–Just since last year, there have been significant changes in views about the environment. In January, air quality in Beijing and several other major cities reached record lows, and the public is increasingly taking note of this issue. Nearly half (47%) rate air pollution a very big problem, an increase of 11 percentage points from 2012.

    And following a year that included headlines about thousands of dead pigs floating down a river through the center of Shanghai, concerns about water pollution have also increased. Four-in-ten say it is a very big problem, compared with 33% last year.

    • andrewfez Says:

      I’m starting to see news stories like =China pollution to blame for 8 year old’s lung cancer= when I’m just casually browsing the internet (not actively searching for environmental stuff; just reading, say, an investment article with links to other articles on the side).

      I’ve also see ’em shut down their transportation on account of the pollution – its starting to hurt their economy.

  9. […] Don’t bet on the next 20 years being the same as the last 20. […]

  10. […] fossil fueled growth that China has seen in the last 30 years is running up against some natural limits. How much longer can the Chinese plan to filter their emissions thru their children’s […]

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