Can you imagine wearing an industrial filter mask for the next 20 years, every time you walk out the door to protect you from air pollution?

This is effectively what is needed if you live in one of many mega cities in China, where the level of tiny, airborne particles known as PM2.5 regularly reaches "unhealthy" to "very unhealthy" levels.

Filter Field Testing Result

Filter field result on 27 Nov 2012 showing how much
PM2.5 you inhale outdoors in 24 hours in Beijing.

An estimated 8,572 acute premature deaths occurred in four major Chinese cities in 2012, due to episodes of high levels of PM2.5 pollution, a study by Greenpeace East Asia and Peking University’s School of Public Health has concluded.

If chronic illnesses caused by PM2.5 (fine particulate matter 2.5 microns or less in diameter) and the resultant deaths are counted, the health cost would be significantly higher.

From the Chinese perspective, it is the feared impact to public health, rather than climate change, that is the real driver of increasingly tough governmental action to curb coal consumption.

On December 5, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) announced a 350 billion yuan (US$56 billion) plan to reduce air pollution during the 2011-2015 period.

Termed the ‘12th Five-Year Air Pollution Control Plan’, emissions cuts will be targeted in 117 cities covering 13 geographical regions, including the major economic hubs of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta. Pilot controls on coal consumption are being introduced in the three hub regions as well as in Shandong province.

The MEP’s plan requires, by 2015, a reduction in:

  • PM2.5 levels of between 4% and 15%;
  • PM10 levels of between 8% and 15%;
  • Sulfur dioxide levels of between 6% and 14%;
  • Nitrogen dioxide levels of between 4% and 10%.

These reductions are significant because coal consumption has been shown to contribute up to 40% of total PM2.5 pollution in some eastern megacities such as Beijing and Guangzhou. The MEP’s plan complements the tougher air quality standards introduced by the State Council earlier this year —which include limits on PM2.5 and other pollutants in cities.

Pollution Haze

Satellite image of pollution haze covering eastern China
on 11 December 2012. Copyright: NASA

Action is not only being taken by the central government. Earlier this year, key regional governments have already begun to act. For example:

  • in May 2012, Beijing announced a coal-consumption cap of 15 million tonnes by 2015;
  • in December 2012, Guangzhou, China’s third largest city, will cap coal consumption at 2010 levels by 2016.

So, does this mean that China is going to stop burning coal overnight? No. But it does mean that the International Energy Agency's projected increase in international coal consumption and coal trade is too high.

Female Cyclist in Beijing The IEA said that even though coal demand growth is slowing, "coal’s share of the global energy mix is still rising, and by 2017 coal will come close to surpassing oil as the world’s top energy source".

This is line with the current policies scenario that the IEA said will lead to approximately 5.3 degrees global warming – a disaster for global efforts to stem climate change.

But the IEA's outlook on coal consumption and trade is likely to be on the high side given public worry about the horrendous toll on human health and the global climate, alongside competition from renewable energy increases.

Moreover, the outlook continues to place China in a lead role in terms of its hunger for coal and fails to take into account a transition phase that China is entering into, both from an economic and social perspective.

Besides the fact that almost all coal-fired power plants in China have been losing money since 2011, around 30 to 35% of proposed new builds have been delayed, according to China’s State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERC).

Importantly, the rising concern over coal’s health impacts is leading to accelerated change.

The Chinese authorities, backed by the Chinese public, are starting to refuse to accept coal’s horrendous external costs – a development that will only gather pace in coming years and dull the country's appetite for the commodity that is choking its cities.

Iris Cheng, Climate and Energy Campaigner, Greenpeace International