China’s plan to limit coal pollution will benefit the rich but leave the rest of the country gasping

Shanxi province or Mordor?
Shanxi province or Mordor?
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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This item has been corrected.

China’s state news agency Xinhua just announced a pilot program to “control” coal consumption in a few dozen major cities, including Beijing. January’s “airpocalypse“, when pollution reached unprecedented levels, spurred outrage among Beijing residents, who lose some 40 babies a year to air pollution from nearby coal plants. So is it time for China’s parents, environmentalists and outdoor running enthusiasts to celebrate?

Probably not. At most, 1.3% of new coal plant capacity (pdf, p. 36-7) slated for construction is in these cities. Plus, the pilot, which has been in the works for some time (link in Chinese), does little more than formalize a program of mine closures and cancellation of coal plants already underway in wealthy cities, while also raising utility prices (Chinese). That latter point’s important; Chinese power companies typically lose money—$2.4 billion in 2011 (pdf, p.8)—as coal prices are somewhat market-set, while electricity prices are government-controlled.

But coal, which produces around 70% of China’s power, is cheap and plentiful, particularly in poor provinces. Many of these provinces have alarmingly little clean water left because they already rely so heavily on coal. And while it might not be doing it in posh coastal cities, the government’s actually planning to build many more coal-fired power plants.

“Three large coal plants every month”

Correction: many, many more. ”Coal will continue to grow rapidly until 2022, adding on average 38GW [gigawatts] per year—equal to three large coal plants every month” (pdf), as a note out today by Bloomberg New Energy Finance framed it. And that’s not counting the small ones; all told, China had 363 coal plants slated for construction, as of July 2012—increasing its coal-fired generating capacity by nearly 75%—as World Resources Institute (WRI), a non-governmental organization, reports.

China’s coal business already consumes 17-20% of the country’s water

Besides polluting the country’s water, China’s coal industry also uses vast amounts of it. Miners need water to extract, wash and process their coal. Energy plants use it to generate steam—the energy source—as well as to cool down their systems. That’s why coal plants already claim between 17% and 20% of China’s average daily water consumption.

How do you produce 60% of China’s coal-fired energy with only 5% of its water supply?

That’s not counting what will happen as China opens those 363 new coal plants, though. And who stands to suffer the most? Not Beijing, Tianjin or the other cities in the coal-pilot program. Despite having just 5% of China’s total available water supply, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Gansu, Ningxia, Shanxi and Hebei provinces will generate 60% of the country’s total proposed coal-fired power, says WRI. That means that as soon as 2015, coal plants in some of those provinces will need 140% of their province’s available water, as Greenpeace noted last year.

“Water stress” refers to the ratio of total water usage versus available renewable supply. While 40% is scary, 80% is roughly apocalyptic.
“Water stress” refers to the ratio of total water usage versus available renewable supply. While 40% is scary, 80% is roughly apocalyptic.
Image: World Resources Institute

The good news? Despite this boom in coal-powered plants, China’s dependence on coal is decreasing. By 2030, 44% of China’s power will come from coal, reports BNEF, down from 67% in 2012. And after 2022, the pace of building coal-power plants will slow.

But, says BNEF, that’s only after 10-15 years of letting growing coal output plague the Chinese people’s health and environment. The pilot program announced today means that China’s well-heeled may soon enjoy electricity usage without inhaling the lethal consequences. But they might do so at the cost of draining the poorer provinces dry. And that, folks, is some crackerjack problem-solving from China’s central planners.

Correction (September 3, 2013, 1:27 p.m. EST): The 363 coal plants slated for construction were as of July 2012, not August 2013, as the post originally implied. Also, the six provinces and regions referred to will produce 60% of the proposed coal-fired power—meaning the additional capacity and not, as originally implied, total capacity.