"The green transition is an extremely tough challenge, and China cannot afford to waste a day," says Li Yan, Head of Climate and Energy Campaign at Greenpeace. "China already failed to meet its target for emissions cuts last year and has let its coal consumption grow out of control. It simply mustn't fail again. 2012 is the year to reverse the downward trend and race against the clock."
China is already suffering multiple environmental problems from its over-reliance on coal, including severe air and water pollution, a lack of water resources and massive emissions of greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, its people have become increasingly aware of these problems and do not hesitate to voice their concerns, putting unprecedented pressure on the government to take action.
"Coal lies at the heart of all these problems," added Li Yan. "Coal has grown into one of the biggest obstacles along China's path to a green economy. Unless China tackles its coal problem, it has no chance of realizing its 12th Five-Year Plan."
As China prepares for a leadership transition, we expect the government to demonstrate a strong commitment and political will to change the country's imbalanced energy portfolio.
We offer the following perspectives and suggestions on tackling the coal problem.
On the expansion of coal-fired power plants in western China
China, the world's biggest energy consumer, has seen its energy consumption continue to rise. In 2011, the country consumed the equivalent of 3.48 billion tons of coal, a 7% increase year-on-year, while coal consumption rose by an even faster 9.7%.
According to its 12th Five-Year Plan, China will try to meet its increasing energy needs by exploiting coal reserves in the west of the country. Five key integrated energy bases that will rely heavily on coal to generate their electricity have been launched, all in the country's ecologically-fragile western regions. Clearly, these energy bases, located in Shanxi province, the Ordos Basin, the eastern part of Inner Mongolia, the Xinjiang region and the southwestern provinces, will put huge burdens on their local environments.
Coal-fired power plants have already caused critical environmental problems for China, due to their extremely high water and carbon intensity, as well as the damaging pollutants they discharge. Their unchecked expansion in China's western regions, which are already suffering from scarce water resources and a fragile ecosystem, will certainly drain the area's precious remaining water resources and thus bring unpredictable social, economic and environmental problems to these areas.
We suggest the following measures should be taken to address the threat that coal-fired power plants put on the environment of western China:
1. We call for the state government to reassess and reconsider the current plan for developing these power bases and the coal-fired power industry in general, taking into account environmental risks and the sustainable development of the western regions. The feasibility study of power and coal chemical projects must include their potential impact on water resources, and local residents must be informed about the findings of these assessments.
2. We call for strict laws and regulations to be established to protect water resources in the areas. These laws and regulations must conform to the directive on "Implementing the Strictest Water Resources Management Scheme" recently issued by the State Council, while findings of the "Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Development of the Western Regions", compiled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, must be presented to legislators. The issuing of administrative regulations must involve not only the Energy Ministry, but also the Ministries of Water Resources, Environmental Protection, Agriculture, and Industry and Information Technology.
On PM2.5 monitoring and treatment
The smog lingering over eastern China during much of the last winter has illuminated the urgency of monitoring and treating PM2.5 particles, defined as 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller. Under unprecedented pressure from the public, some Chinese cities have taken the initiative to release PM2.5 readings regularly. Greenpeace welcomes the move and calls for more cities to join the action.
Not only must cities let their people know about the air they breathe every day, they must also start addressing air pollution by controlling pollutants discharged into the air, particularly from coal burning, a major source of fine particles. China's long-term overdependence on coal has produced a severe adverse impact on air quality, and to rectify China's air pollution problem, the government must severely ease the nation's coal consumption, while decreasing its reliance on coal.
We propose governments in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Economic Zone, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta – areas suffering the most from air pollution – to set binding limits on coal consumption and link the approval of new industrial projects to those limits. There must also be effective measures to treat and mitigate the pollutants caused by the burning of coal.
On the introduction of a carbon tax
In 2011, the first year of the 12th Five-Year Plan, China failed to meet its annual goals for reducing both energy and carbon intensity by 16% and 17% respectively. This marks a major setback to its aim of implementing the Five-Year Plan and indicates that more players, both from the commercial and government sectors, need to be involved to change the situation.
Internationally, the introduction of a carbon tax has proved to be an effective tool in discouraging the over-reliance on fossil fuels, as well as controlling greenhouse gas emissions. A carbon tax would undoubtedly help China, one of the world's biggest fossil fuel consumers, to move away from its over-reliance on coal. The relentless progress of climate change has left China with no time to dwell on the matter. The time has come for the country to start collecting carbon taxes.
Greenpeace calls upon China's lawmakers and political advisers to include in their agenda a plan for introducing a carbon tax and suggests the tax should be imposed by 2015.
"The issue is all about time." says Li Yan. "A green transition is something that, sooner or later, every country will have to face, and letting it happen faster will benefit China in every possible way."
Image © Zhao Gang & Simon Lim / Greenpeace
Emmy Yuanyuan Guan Media Officer
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