Air pollution

After five months of negotiations behind closed doors, China has finally announced a detailed air pollution action plan to cut fine particle PM2.5 pollution and clear the skies above the country. The plan, for the first time, sets out to cut coal consumption in a way which could significantly affect China's upward coal-use trend, and even the future of our climate.

In Greenpeace's Beijing coal team we have campaigned for years to achieve this. After hearing about the negotiations we have been holding our collective breath while intensifying campaigning to increase public momentum of the air pollution debate. Even the negotiation process has been an unprecedented move in Chinese energy policy, juxtaposing the growing public demand for clean environment against the old policy of maximising the GDP.

Two years ago, when our coal campaign started, something like this would have been called, well, Greenpeace dreaming the impossible. But it has not come from nothing. It has taken unparalleled levels of public debate over air pollution and its sources – something that the Greenpeace coal campaign has been empowering and pushing forward for two years. We have been unique in demanding that air pollution should be tackled by cutting its major root cause: Enormous coal use in China. This, finally, seems to be in the process of being agreed.

The plan sets ambitious timelines for reducing PM2.5 in Beijing and other key heavily-populated cities, precisely where the majority of Chinese are living and their demands for blue skies are loudest. It calls three main economic areas – Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta – to peak and decline their coal consumption by 2017. It also bans the approval of new conventional coal-fired power plants in these key regions. As these regions have been some of the biggest coal users in the country, this is a major move in China's coal policy. We have not seen anything like this before.

The plan has already been accompanied by very ambitious targets for cutting coal consumption in the provinces of Shandong, Hebei and Beijing, as well as in the megacity of Guangzhou – population 16 million. Motivated by the major role of coal and the overall air pollution problem in China, these provinces have been pushed to create plans of an absolute coal consumption reduction of 73 million tons by 2017. Just to give perspective; these three provinces consumed more coal in 2011 than all of the European Union. Shandong is the largest coal consumer among Chinese provinces and Hebei is the fourth largest. The provinces have been growing their coal consumption at 6% a year, so the absolute reduction targets require a rapid and dramatic reversal of the coal consumption trend.

However, Greenpeace analysis and modelling indicates that the PM2.5 reduction targets are unlikely to be met without significant further reductions in coal consumption coming from the other eastern provinces. Fortunately, we know that coal plans are being negotiated in the Yangzhe River Delta around Shanghai and Peal River Delta around Guangzhou. These coastal provinces are now expected to make their respective announcement following the national plan.

This plan is major news also for the coal companies in the US, Australia and Indonesia, setting their eyes to export coal to China. The ban on new coal-fired power plants covers China's most important coal importing regions; the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta, responsible for more than 50% of thermal coal imports. With the power sector being the main importer of coal, this will very significantly curb future import demand.

Greenpeace has been campaigning for controlling coal use and air pollution in China for the past two years, calling for regional coal caps in key coal burning provinces in eastern China as the main tool to tackle the pollution. Although implementing this policy will take some work, and much further work is needed to curb down coal use in China, we see this as an important first victory for our campaign.

Image: Beijing personal testing filters collected from 2 volunteers and a stationary monitoring spot. Sampling time 20th Dec. 14:00 till 10:00 21st Dec.

Harri Lammi is an advisor for the Greenpeace coal team in Beijing. He has been living in Beijing for 2.5 years.