Coal is the leading culprit of air pollution in China. Coal supplies 80% of the country’s electricity and 70% of its energy – as well as the lion's share of its air pollutants.
China's epic climb to the world's second-largest economy has had devastating health impacts. While it might be difficult to separate the impacts of pollution and tobacco, in 2012 the president of the China Medical Association, Zhong Nanshan told the Guardian lung cancer rates are two or three times higher in cities than in the countryside, even though smoking rates are the same. And that the disease is on the rise.
Air pollution will remain a serious problem in China as long as coal continues to be the country's major energy source. According to official figures and as quoted in our report "The True Cost of Coal", black fossil fuel is responsible for 85% of China's sulfur dioxide, 67% of nitrogen oxides and 70% of particulate matter emissions.
PM2.5 concentration levels have particularly endangered public health in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an. The PM2.5 concentration levels in all four cities exceed World Heath Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines. This means higher health risks to the cardiovascular system, cerebrovascular system and an increase in the probability of cancer and premature death.
Consider these statistics:
- Cardio-vascular disease is the country's biggest cause of death. And respiratory diseases is behind an alarming 15% of the country's deaths.
- Our report Dangerous Breathing found that if the cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an had effectively controlled PM2.5 levels and met WHO air quality guidelines in 2012, the number of premature deaths would have decreased by at least 81%, while the economic benefits of reducing these premature deaths in the four cities would amount to 875 million USD.
- Mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants can travel more than 1,000km from its emission source.
- The world's highest birth defect rate – 8.4% – is found in the coal mining and processing area of Shanxi province, according to the Earth Policy Institute. Sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, all produced by coal burning, have all been linked to birth defects.
- In our report we estimated that 70% of the lead and 45% of the arsenic in raw coal will be enriched in coal ash, the solid byproduct of coal combustion. Wind and dust storms can spread coal ash for hundreds of thousands of kilometers.
- A 10-year study of air pollution in Beijing and Shanghai found that coal ash is a main component of China’s spring dust storms, during which levels of arsenic, lead, selenium and sulphur in the air exceed normal by up to 53 times.
Fortunately, the solution to the problem is simple: stop burning coal. Greenpeace is working on reducing China's reliance on coal, in favor of clean, renewable energy. For more on what we are doing, you can visit our section on coal.
In the short-term, there are also many intermediate solutions for air pollution. However, all of these solutions require governments to recognize the impact of air pollution on public health and the economy, and take action immediately.