China's clinging to coal an unnecessary contradiction

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Feature Story - 2013-02-06
The biggest dirty-energy project on the planet is the planned 20% expansion of China’s coal mining and production operations in five semi-arid western and northern provinces, where most of China’s remaining reserves of the dirty fuel are to be found. If the mines, coal power stations and factories planned for this area during China’s current five-year plan go ahead, they would spew 1,400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – adding more than double the amount of Germany’s total emissions in 2010.

Coal in China

A child at a fence looks at a power plant, located close to the grasslands. © Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Key facts: Increase in annual CO2 by 2015: 1,400Mt

Country with comparable annual emissions: Russia

Companies involved: China Datang Corporation, China Guodian Corporation, China Huadian Corporation, China Huaneng Group, China Power investment Corporation, Shenhua Group Corporation Ltd.

The biggest dirty-energy project on the planet is the planned 20% expansion of China’s coal mining and production operations in five semi-arid western and northern provinces, where most of China’s remaining reserves of the dirty fuel are to be found. If the mines, coal power stations and factories planned for this area during China’s current five-year plan go ahead, they would spew 1,400 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – adding more than double the amount of Germany’s total emissions in 2010.

China is both the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal. The fuel supplies 70% of the country’s energy needs and 80% of its electricity. It is, therefore, no surprise that 80% of China’s carbon dioxide emissions come from burning coal.

In 2009, the World Energy Council reported that China had 114.5 billion short tons of recoverable coal reserves, the third-largest in the world behind the US and Russia, and equivalent to about 14% of the world’s total reserves. The five western and northern provinces are planning to increase production by 830 million tons a year by 2015. This expansion would be at odds with policy goals set out in the country’s five-year plan that calls for curbs on air pollution, a target to limit coal consumption growth by 2015 and reductions in CO2 emissions in relation to economic output.

Climate change that challenges China

China will not escape impacts caused by dangerous climate change. The most serious risks the country faces include a decrease in food production, more severe droughts, the shrinking of glaciers that are the source of the major rivers, and more frequent extreme weather phenomena. If there are no adaption measures, a 2.5°C rise in the average global temperature would lead to as much as a 20% decline in Chinese food production. It has been estimated that by the year 2050, four western provinces of China – Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia – would face intense water scarcity with water demand exceeding the available water resource.

Water resources are already under heavy stress in some parts of the country. Taking the middle section of the Yellow River as an example, 35% of the decline in water availability between 1970-2000 has been attributed to climate change. Climate change will also lead to an increase in extreme weather phenomena, including droughts, floods, and high temperatures. Statistics show that in the 1950s storms on China’s coasts resulted in a direct economic loss of millions of renminbi (RMB). This increased to billions in the later part of 1980s. Now, the annual average direct economic loss is 10bn RMB ($1.6bn US dollars).

Where’s the water?

The provinces earmarked for new coal bases would face a serious water problem if planned coal expansion were to go ahead. By the end of 2015, the annual water consumption of the coal-power bases in Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Ningxia would either equal or exceed the entire area’s current total industrial water consumption (94.1% to 140.8% of current total industrial consumption). That would mean these coal power bases, if fully developed, would consume a significant amount of water currently allocated to farming, urban residential use, environmental conservation and other sectors. The fierce competition for water resources between industrial and non-industrial sectors would very likely cause conflict and unrest in those areas.

These provinces simply could not provide the massive water allocations required for increased coal mining, coal production, and coal chemical production, not to mention for the new infrastructure and transport projects which would come along with the expansion.

Coal production and use are already responsible for more than 10% of all water usage in China. Water is needed to mine and wash coal, as well as to cool coal- fired power plants. When coal mines are opened and the associated new heavy industry begins, water is secured by accessing local lakes and rivers, pumping groundwater, and constructing reservoirs to capture surface water, which diverts its normal flow and reabsorption into the soil. All three methods result in the water table sinking, leading to land degradation and desertification, damaging the livelihood of local farmer and herder communities. Before coal is mined, the groundwater is extracted to allow access to the fossil fuel, resulting in large-scale groundwater depletion. It is estimated that for every ton of coal extracted, 2.5m3 of groundwater is pumped out of the ground and contaminated.

Open-pit coal mining in Inner Mongolia

Sheep grazing in a grassland engulfed by an expanding coal mine. © Lu Guang / Greenpeace

Iconic grasslands under threat

Pollution and the intense use of water have already caused desertification and degradation of some of Inner Mongolia’s iconic grasslands, which herders rely on to feed their livestock. From 2004 to 2009, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, Inner Mongolia lost 46.8 million cubic metres from its total reserves of freshwater, a drop of 15%. During the same period, Xinjiang lost 95.5 million cubic metres. Some parts of the grasslands have turned into dust bowls and now cracks in the mud appear where natural lakes used to be. People in the area report that the production of the Xilingol grassland has been lowered. The Wulagai wetland has all but dried up. The desert has started creeping into many other grasslands but there is still time to save many of these areas by limiting the expansion of coal mining.

Glaciers shrink under climate change

The Yellow River source region plays a vital role in supplying and regulating water to the entire water basin, with its length above Lanzhou providing 55.6% of the river’s total water flow. However, in the last 30 years, the region has lost 17% of its glaciers and the ice is melting at a rate that is now 10 times faster than it has been for the previous 300 years.

Old coal industry cities facing pollution problem

The coal industry is the backbone of cities such as Datong City in Shaanxi Province. The intense energy consumption and heavy pollution of the coal industry have brought significant environmental problems for Datong City, including, but not limited to, pollution of river water, the destruction of ground water, land sinking due to mining, and heavy air pollution. According to monitoring from 2005 by the Datong City Environmental Department, the water quality of most of the rivers in Datong City had become so poor that the water was essentially not usable. Coal contributes to 85% of China’s sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, 67% of its nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions and 70% of particulate matter (PM).

Mother river struggling under industrial expansion

China’s new coal-mining bases would also place further strain on the already polluted and struggling Yellow River cradle of Chinese civilisation and the largest sandy river in the world. People in the cities and communities along the river depend on it for their livelihood. Removing too much water from the Yellow River would threaten ecosystems, cities and farming communities.

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