As the biggest provincial economy in China, Guangdong is the most capable of accelerating changes in the country's energy structure, to lead in meeting new national air quality standards. Unfortunately, it also has one of the highest capacities of coal-fired power.
A severe health hazard
According to a Greenpeace East Asia study, in 2011 around 3,600 people died prematurely and over 4,000 children suffered from asthma, thanks to emissions of PM2.5 particles from coal-fired plants in Guangdong and Hong Kong.
The region also sees a loss of economic output of 4.7 billion yuan (HK$5.9 billion) per year due to lowered life expectancy and increased sick leave, related to air pollution.
Coal is a major risk factor in all four leading causes of death in the region: stroke, heart attack, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.
Growing public disapproval
This year a power plant was planned for construction 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 plant would cause 1,700 premature deaths over its operating life, despite being fitted with state-of-the-art SO2, NOx and particulate filters.
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.
Simply pushing the construction of power plants to neighboring cities outside the Pearl River Delta Region will not solve the air pollution problem. All cities of Guangdong, and Hong Kong, are interdependent in terms of air quality as well as public health. The only way to eliminate the health impacts associated with coal burning is to set a clear-cut coal reduction target and to jointly develop renewable energy to meet power demands.
But the good news is that earlier this month the government announced a plan to improve air quality in the Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong regions that will significantly slow down China’s coal consumption growth. It included a ban on approving new coal-fired power plants in key economic regions that currently have 30% of the country’s coal-fired power generation capacity and ambitious targets to cut coal consumption in these three key provinces.
Guangdong has long been a pioneer in China of both economic and social reform. If it were to take the lead in setting a clear-cut coal reduction target, that would have major implications for the rest of China in its exploration of a more sustainable path.
Image: Greenpeace activists set up a symbolic wind turbine in front one of the region’s biggest coal-fired power stations, the CLP's Castle Peak. © Greenpeace / Alan Hindle