Greenpeace is campaigning for China to end its reliance on coal-burning, and instead transition to a green development pathway powered by green energy.
July 2010 - A Greenpeace activist collects coal ash samples from the Zhaluji village coal ash disposal site, operated by the Pannan Power Plant, in Pan county, Liupanshui, Guizhou province.
The bulk of China's greenhouse gas emissions come from burning coal. This dirty fossil fuel generates more than 70% of the country's energy and 80% of its electricity. But it also contributes more than 80% of its carbon-dioxide emissions.
As well as driving climate change, coal's production process is inherently dirty: its mining, processing and transporting destroy landscapes, suck up water resources and endanger workers' lives. Coal burning pollutes the air, causing respiratory illnesses, creating filthy smog and dust that cover towns, homes and our lungs.
Working with economists and scientists, Greenpeace is exposing coal's widespread impact throughout China. Urban dwellers may think themselves insulated from the environmental damages of coal mining and combustion, but as Greenpeace research shows, coal's impact is far reaching. Air pollution from coal combustion, as well as coal ash, can travel thousands of kilometres from their origin. Whether through pollution or climate change, coal is bad for all of us.
Greenpeace is pushing for the Chinese government to realize the true, unaffordable cost of coal and end its reliance upon this fossil fuel. For the sake of the climate, environment and our health, China urgently needs to switch to a low-carbon, sustainable development pathway.
Below is a summary of some of our key research projects over the last few years. The full reports can all be found online.
The True Cost of Coal
In 2008, jointly with WWF and the Energy Foundation, Greenpeace commissioned The True Cost of Coal, a report written by the Energy Research Institutes of the National Development and Reform Commission) and the Shanxi Academy of Social Sciences, the School of Public Health at Peking University and the National Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
The True Cost of Coal revealed that coal was much more expensive than its face-value price: in 2007, coal cost China an additional RMB 1.7 trillion in "external" costs – including damages to infrastructure, health issues, human injuries and loss of life, air and water pollution and ecosystem degradation.
This RMB 1.7 trillion – 7% of China's GDP that year – is not reflected in the price of coal, making it an artificially cheap source of energy. Instead, these external costs are passed on to the public – who have to pay for the price of respiratory illness, lung cancer, environmental degradation and lost productivity.
Greenpeace calls for China to reform the price of coal to more fully reflect its true cost for society and the environment. Coal-burners – such as power plants and factories – will instead bear the cost of coal’s environmental and health damages, and thus have incentives to seek out clean, renewable sources of energy that do not destroy the environment or our climate.
The True Cost of Coal: Air Pollution and Public Health
In a follow-up study to The True Cost of Coal, Greenpeace released a report studying the impact of coal burning on air pollution and public health. The report found that every ton of coal burned cost an average of RMB 44.8 in related health costs. It also found that the health problems caused by coal were often long-lasting, chronic and non-specific, easily overlooked by the public. These adverse health effects place a considerable burden on China’s health services and are equivalent to huge economic losses every year.
The report hopes to raise public awareness in China regarding the widespread, chronic health impacts of coal pollution.
The True Cost of Coal: An Investigation into Coal Ash in China
In the third report in this series, Greenpeace examined coal ash – a little-known byproduct of coal burning. Even though many people have not heard of coal ash, China produces an enormous quantity of it – at least 375 million tonnes every year, enough to fill one Olympic-sized swimming pool every 2.5 minutes.
Coal ash can spread easily if not properly stored. Greenpeace investigated 14 power plants around China and found that many of them failed to follow regulations when disposing of their coal ash. Many disposal sites lacked protective barriers to stop the light ash particles from spreading via wind or water.
Our campaigners also discovered that many ash disposal sites were situated illegally close to villages and farmlands, with terrible consequences for residents. Villagers told us about how coal ash poisoned their farm animals, including dairy cows, damaged their homes or contaminated their crops. What's more, coal ash can spread even further, traveling via wind for thousands of kilometres, or into crops irrigated by contaminated water, and thus into the food chain.
This is a serious problem, as coal ash contains over 20 kinds of heavy metals and chemicals. Unfortunately, Greenpeace testing found levels of heavy metals above government standards in the drinking and irrigation water used by villages near ash sites.
Coal ash shows us that coal's environmental hazards go far beyond its mining and combustion: it can easily impact the health and wellbeing of those who live thousands of kilometres away from power plants. The only long-term solution is to reduce the country's reliance on coal and transition to an economy powered by renewable, clean energy.
The True Cost of Coal: Coal Dust Storms
Released in April 2011, this report examines the infamous dust storms that sweep China in springtime. Originating from arid northwestern China, these storms contain not only dust but also toxic coal ash and other coal pollutants, which are picked up by the wind as the storms pass through Shanxi and Inner Mongolia. These are some of China's largest coal-producing regions, which lie squarely on the way to Beijing, Shanghai and other urban centers on the densely populated eastern seaboard.
Collaborating with professor Zhang Guoshun of Fudan University, our report had a shocking discovery: the levels of pollutants significant to coal – such as arsenic, lead and sulfur – rose significantly in Beijing and Shanghai during dust storms.
This means that people are not only inhaling dust and sand from northwestern China, but also, quite likely, coal ash and other pollutants. Wind speeds of magnitude four (5.5 to 7.9 meters per second) can carry coal ash, a very light particle, across distances up to 100,000 to 150,000 square meters. But it takes even stronger winds – usually magnitude eight – to form a dust storm, which means that the ash will spread over an even wider distance.
According to Greenpeace calculations, there are nearly 800 coal-fired power plants above 6 megawatts of capacity in 10 provinces and regions that lie along dust storm routes in northern China.
Quitting coal is the only sustainable, long-term solution to reducing air and water pollution, respiratory illnesses and, most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, China has vast, untapped potential in clean, renewable energy – learn more about them here, or find out more about what you can do.