Coming from Beijing to attend the Warsaw climate summit, I expected to have temporary relief for my lungs. As I departed from Beijing’s international airport, the city’s air quality index (AQI) shot up 15 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended level. Yet my hope turned out to be nothing but wishful thinking. The first night after landing in Warsaw saw the hourly AQI hovering near 100 – not as deadly as it was in Beijing, but still approaching the yearly average level of the Chinese capital. Walking on the streets of Warsaw, I smelled the very familiar coal-flavored air – an ironic way to be reminded of home.
Facing daunting environmental concerns imposed by coal the general public, in both China and Poland, are expressing their views for a cleaner pathway.
In July of this year, Greenpeace commissioned an independent survey in five Chinese cities that are heavily affected by air pollution. Nearly 70% of respondents said they are unsatisfied with the current air quality. 92% of them want government to take more ambitious actions so that air quality could reach acceptable standards by 2020.
These views have already been translated into civil actions. Also, in July, concerned citizens in Shenzhen, China’s southern economic powerhouse, rallied behind their legislators and collectively registered their opposition towards the construction of two 1000MW coal-fired power plants, eventually forcing the project to be called off. According to Greenpeace estimation, the new power plants, if built, would cause nearly two thousand premature deaths over its operating life.
Today, a poll asking Poles three simple questions was launched. Here are the results: The overwhelming majority of Poles choose renewable energy over coal and nuclear. 89% percent of Polish citizens want more energy coming from renewable sources, based on an opinion poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS). Moreover, more than two-thirds of the Polish people (70%) want energy policy supporting the development of renewable energy compared to support for coal and lignite (18%) and nuclear energy (16%). Finally, 73% of the Polish people would like Poland to be more involved in actions to prevent negative effects of climate change.
In responding to the public call, the actions of the governments of both countries, however, diverge quite a lot.
In September, the Chinese State Council published a comprehensive air pollution control plan. Coal consumption control is positioned at the very forefront of this plan.
Pursuant with the call from the central government, four provinces (two of them, Shandong and Hebei, are China’s first and fourth coal consumers, respectively) made individual pledges to peak and decline their coal consumption by 2017 – a first in Chinese history when negative coal consumption targets have ever been mandated. Together, these four provinces will need to collectively reduce 83 million tons of coal in the next four years; a sharp annual average decline of 6%. This is even more significant given that these provinces still kept growing at 6-8% over the past five years.
As opposed to the Chinese officials, the Polish government is pushing for more coal and lignite. The most blatant example of the government pushing coal interests is the case of Opole – a flagship coal project for the government. This project consists of two new units for an existing power plant, operated by the partly state-owned energy company PGE. PGE currently operates a fleet from which the emissions in 2010 alone resulted in 22 000 life years lost due to the dangerous health impacts of burning coal. Remarkably, the project is so uneconomic that the PGE is not keen on it – the government led by PM Tusk, however, insists on it.
Such a divergence in the responsiveness of the Chinese and Polish officials gives rise to the question: Does the Polish government care less for its people’s health and the climate than the Chinese authorities?
This is why Greenpeace staged a projection to remind politicians of the reality: coal means climate change.
And as the Philippines climate commissioner reminded us in a powerful speech on the first day of the COP: Climate change is madness. This madness is not authorized by the people. The time to start listening to them and phasing out dirty energy interests is now.
Li Shuo is a Climate & Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia.
Images: Part of Greenpeace's projections onto six Polish coal power stations before the start of the Warsaw Climate Change Conference COP19/CMP9. The projection reads: "Arctic Melt Begins Here!" © Bente Stachowske / Greenpeace