China sets out to name and shame the country’s worst polluters

You can’t hide.
You can’t hide.
Image: Reuters/Jason Lee
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China’s authorities seem to be taking the country’s coal pollution problems more seriously. The ministry of environmental protection this week announced the country’s first set of coal reduction quotas in northern China—close to Beijing, Tianjin, and some of the country’s most polluted cities.

Because coal power has long fueled the country’s industry-led growth, officials have been loath to force provinces to cut back. But public anger over daily blankets of smog and reports of rising pollution-related diseases like cancer have forced the central government’s hand.

After months of negotiating, officials have started releasing details on how the country will clean up. The chief, as well as most difficult aim, is to cut China’s reliance on coal, which accounts for over 75% of the country’s electricity needs. Authorities hope to lower that to below 65% by 2017. This week, authorities released specific reduction goals (paywall) for coal consumption in the north, near the country’s capitol and the major municipality of Tianjin. Under the plan, Beijing, Tianjin, and the provinces of Hebei and Shandong will cut their yearly coal consumption by a total of 83 million tonnes (pdf, in Chinese), or 91 million tons, by 2017. China’s vice premier also said the government would start releasing a list every month of the country’s 10 best and worst cities for air pollution.

The move follows other recently announced measures like taking old cars off the road, and ramping up the use of other forms of energy like nuclear or renewables. Last week, officials banned the building of new conventional coal plants in Greater Beijing, the Yangtze Delta region, in the south of the country near Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta, in Guangdong province. “As these regions have been some of the biggest coal users in the country, this is a major move in China’s coal policy. We have not seen anything like this before,” Harri Lammi of Greenpeace’s coal team in Beijing said in a statement.

Another potential benefit of the government’s plan is water conservation. Coal plants use tonnes of water for cooling as well as producing steam that drives turbines. At least 80% of Chinese coal is produced in regions in the north that are what the United Nations describes as “water stressed.” Lessening coal consumption would take some of the pressure off groundwater sources as well as the overexploited Yellow River in northern China.

Whether announcing coal reduction targets and shaming polluting cities is effective depends on whether authorities can effectively monitor local provinces, environmental activists say. Yang Fuqiang, with the Natural Resources Defense Council told Reuters, ”Measuring is still a big problem. Even if you look at the provincial energy data and the national data, there is a massive discrepancy of around 200-300 million metric tons and it could be more than that.”