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China's coal addiction

Nils Zimmermann Kommentarbild App
Nils Zimmermann
December 11, 2015

China's central government wants to transition away from coal, but local officials are resisting. That's one reason why heavy smog frequently blankets major cities despite talk of building an "eco-civilization."

Symbolbild - Kohlekraftwerk China
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

This week, Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced a $300 million (274 million euro) loan to China to help develop environmental and clean energy policies for Beijing, the neighboring port of Tianjin and surrounding Hebei province. The area is home to 109 million people.

"Poor air quality has reached such a serious level that it is jeopardizing the capital region's health and sustainable growth," Satoshi Ishii, an ADB urban development expert, said in a statement.

As if on cue, the level of smog in Beijing grew so intense this week that the city issued its first-ever red-alert air pollution warning, ordering schools and factories closed for two days and restricting motorized vehicle traffic. Most of the smog is composed of fine particulates emitted by diesel motors, coal-fired power stations, factory chimneys and coal-burning home heating systems.

China Smog in Beijing
Intense smog in Beijing this week underlined the need for China's government to get serious about transitioning away from coalImage: picture-alliance/epa/W. Hong

China, as the world's largest carbon polluter, is also playing a central role in climate policy negotiations - and its leaders want to be seen as responsible global leaders.

China has very good reasons to make a concerted effort to move away from coal and toward cleaner ways of powering its economy and heating its homes, and the central government has committed to doing that. But domestic politics make progress difficult.

"The central government has substantially decentralized decisions about power-plant permitting to regional and municipal governments," Per Ove Eikeland, a researcher at Norway's Fritjof Nansen Institute, told DW. "Strong connections between coal industry businesses and local politicians make it difficult for China to move away from coal more quickly."

Coal transport in Yangzhou, Jiangsu, China
Coal mining is big business in China, with an estimated 23,000 mines and nearly 4 percent of the country's workforce producing about half the world's coalImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot

Heavy pollution costs

Life expectancy in northern China was about five and a half years shorter than in southern China in the 1990s, according to a 2013 research study by Beijing University researcher Yuyu Chen and others. The study attributed the difference primarily to heart and lung disease related to air pollution from coal-burning.

The reason for the North-South difference: Between 1950 and 1980, the Chinese government provided coal free of charge for home and office winter heating systems for everyone living north of the Huai River and Qinling Mountain range - but not to people south of the line.

The free-coal policy greatly increased total suspended particulates (TSPs) air pollution in northern Chinese cities, and "is causing the 500 million residents of Northern China to lose more than 2.5 billion life-years of life expectancy," the study concluded.

An OECD study published in 2014, "The Cost of Air Pollution," estimated that about 1.3 million people died prematurely in China in 2010 from the consequences of ambient air pollution.

Various estimates have been made of the direct economic costs of air pollution. These costs range from sick days and lost leisure-time or work-time to loss of life-years. Valuing lost lives is a rather arbitrary business, but one such estimate, published in a 2014 joint report by the World Bank and the Development Research Centre of China's State Council, assessed the losses from illnesses and premature deaths as being in the range of $100 billion to $300 billion a year.

Infografik worldwide coal production und CO²-Emissions / power gen in China ENGLISCH
World wide coal production, coal power generation and CO2 emissions

Heavy air pollution also makes expatriates with technical expertise reluctant to relocate to China - another difficult-to-estimate category of economic costs.

Whatever the specific numbers, it's clear that the costs of burning vast quantities of coal are very high - not just the costs to the global climate, but also to Chinese residents' health and quality of life, and to the country's economy.

Moving away from coal - slowly

Home-heating coal isn't free anymore in northern China, but it's still subsidized, and many coal-fired heating stoves remain in place. The government wants to see their use banned from two central Beijing districts by the end of the year, the Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau announced in November.

On December 2, the government announced a promise to reduce air pollution emissions from coal-fired power stations by 60 percent by 2020, according to Xinhua, a government news agency. Inefficient power stations that don't meet new government efficiency standards put in place in 2012 are to be closed by the end of the decade.

Mindful of the need to shift away from coal, China has been investing heavily in building solar, wind, and nuclear power infrastructure. China invested a record $83.3 billion in renewable energy in 2014, up 39 percent from 2013. That was 31 percent of the global total invested in renewables - more than any other single country.

China Windenergie
China is building a lot of wind turbines, but the 105 GW of nameplate wind power capacity as of June 2015 still only contributed 138 TWh, or 2.6 percent of the country's electricityImage: Getty Images/AFP/L. Jin

However, at least 70 percent of China's electricity still comes from coal-fired generators. And even though it's investing heavily in renewables, China also continues to invest heavily in coal: The country built a stunning 39 Gigawatts of coal-fired power plants in 2014.

And in the first nine months of 2015 alone, China's central and provincial governments issued permits to build another 155 new coal-fired power plants, at an estimated capital cost of about $74 billion, according to a Greenpeace analysis published in November. The total capacity of those 155 plants, once they're built, will be as big as that of 40 percent of operational coal power plants in the US.

It's no wonder the country is home to seven of the world's ten most polluted cities, according to a study by Asian Development Bank and Tsinghua University.

All this flies in the face of the Chinese government rhetoric in recent years about turning China into an "eco-civilization" - a line of speech-making that sounds so green, it might have been written by Greenpeace.


Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an ambitious push to reduce pollution and improve environmental sustainability when he took office November 2013. Xi used the occasion of the 18th National Congress to set out his broad vision for China's future as an "eco-civilization," a term Xi first introduced in 2007, years before he became the country's senior leader.

The Chinese Communist leadership has adopted a number of rhetorical themes for its modernizing drives since the reconstruction of the country began at the end of the 1970s under Deng Hsiaoping: "spiritual civilization," "material civilization," "political civilization," and now "ecological civilization."

COP21 in Paris: Obama und Xi
The US and China are the world's two biggest carbon dioxide emitters. Here, their Presidents meet at the COP21 climate policy negotiations in ParisImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Such themes are meant to provide broad guidance, and they don't necessarily translate easily into specific policies. Yet it would be wrong to conclude Chinese leaders aren't sincere about implementing an eco-civilization. In August and September of this year, a policy package was announced that aimed to put flesh on the bones of the idea. Twelve departments of the Central Committee and the State Council - China's Cabinet - contributed to the initative, which was coordinated by the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs.

The reforms address many of the country's environmental problems. There are proposals to establish a national parks system, to improve protection of arable lands and water resources, to formally protect natural resource rights, establish a green financing system, improve environmental compensation mechanisms - and, of course, build a cleaner energy system.

For China watchers, the heavyweight players involved indicate that Beijing is serious about "eco-civilization." But given the enormous inertia of an economy the size of China's, the special interests involved, the power of local officials, and the enormous sunk costs buried in the country's coal economy, it's clear the shift won't be easy, cheap or fast.

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