Air pollution in China

This post was originally published on Greenpeace International, August 14, 2013.

In Europe or the US, a huge 2,000-megawatt coal power project next to a megacity of 10 million would top the list of polluting power plant proposals and attract intense scrutiny. In China, which has continued to add an equivalent amount of capacity every few weeks, permitting a project like this half a year ago was still business-as-usual for the National Energy Administration. However, what ensued after preparatory work was started on the huge coal plant was anything but business-as-usual.

The power plant was planned on the coast of the South China Sea, 50 kilometers from the megacities of Shenzhen, population 10 million, and Hong Kong, population 7 million. Greenpeace East Asia estimated that the new power plant would cause 1,700 premature deaths over its operating life, despite being fitted with state-of-the-art SO2, NOx and particulate filters.

With the terrible air pollution in the Pearl River Delta region around Hong Kong attracting increased public ire, and recent air pollution episodes still fresh in the people’s memory, the project faced a thunderstorm of public opinion opposed to new coal power plants.

Following criticism in social media and traditional media, 43 members of the city’s People’s Congress petitioned the administration to cancel the project and not to allow the construction of new coal-fired power plants anywhere within the city’s borders. The administration reacted only a few weeks later, asking the power company to cancel the power plant construction.

Coal burning is the main cause of China’s severe air pollution problem. Power plants and other industrial projects regularly face opposition because of land and water issues, but this is the first project that has been cancelled mainly on the basis of concerns about air pollution.

China has made astonishing progress in installing filters in its massive coal-fired power plant fleet. However, what has been gained through improvements in end-of-pipe controls has been offset by the doubling of coal burning over the past decade. The gains from new air pollution regulations being squandered by expansion of coal burning was a key argument against the power plant project in Shenzhen.

Guangdong still has a large pipeline of new coal-fired power plant projects, but the public concern on air pollution and pressure to stem coal use will make these increasingly unlikely to be implemented.

There is increasing recognition that the air pollution crisis cannot be solved without putting the brakes on coal consumption. As the Pearl River Delta region around Shenzhen dominates China’s coal imports, this is bad news for the coal mining companies in the US, Australia and Indonesia that are banking on China’s demand. For Chinese citizens, and for the global climate, the news is all good.

Lauri Myllyvirta is an Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace International. Co-authored by Justin Gray, Washington representative at the Sierra Club.

Image © Wang Yikun / Greenpeace