Environment, Talking Point

Beijing launches air warfare

China must curb its reliance on coal-generated electricity. Can it?


Brightening up Beijng: the sun rises in Tiananmen Square (electronically)

The struggle to clear Beijing’s skies is spawning some increasingly surreal solutions, like the English cyclist who rides a ‘breathing bike’ that filters clean air into his fighter-pilot facemask, or the Dutch inventor with plans for a gigantic vacuum cleaner that sucks airborne particles out of the sky.

“You can purify the air so you can breathe,” the Dutchman told a design magazine last year. “It creates these holes of 50 to 60 metres of clean air so you can see the sun again.”

But the search for sunlight took sections of the international media into fantasyland in January, when they reported that Beijingers had been reduced to gawping at artificial sunrises because of the soupy surroundings.

Deprived of the chance to see the sun for real, demoralised locals were said to be watching it on a gigantic silver screen in Tiananmen Square, the news outlets claimed (see photo).

Britain’s Daily Mail was one of the first, headlining: “China starts televising the sunrise on giant TV screens because Beijing is so clouded in smog.”

Pretty soon the claim was looking as murky as the accompanying pictures. Sure, the sun was shining brightly on screen but the footage was part of a tourism promotion for a nearby province, and not a desperate attempt to lighten the local mood.

All the same, it was instructive that the story was seized upon so eagerly as another sign of Beijing’s grimy outlook, a year after some of the worst pollution ever seen in the city. Because of the publicity, China’s capital is on the front line in the battle against air pollution, with authorities promising a new era in the campaign to clear the air. But others warn that there will be more false dawns unless there are fundamental changes in China’s energy policy.

Any sign of cleaner air?

We last wrote about the pollution panic in Beijing after a dreadful few weeks when the city’s air was said to be 40 times more toxic than levels deemed safe by the World Health Organisation.

There were similar outbreaks elsewhere in 2013, especially as the weather worsened with winter. In two high profile examples, smog smothered Harbin in October and suffocated Shanghai in the weeks before Christmas.

In fact, December was the worst month for air quality last year, according to the China Daily, with more than 80% of the 74 cities with official air monitoring devices failing to meet standards for at least half of the month. And sure enough the smog was back in Beijing as 2014 began. Pollution spiked to ‘beyond index’ levels and city bosses urged residents to stay safe by staying indoors.

So nothing to celebrate, then?

It won’t be much comfort to millions of mask-wearing Chinese but the picture is starting to look more promising in policy terms.

Eight months after the first ‘air-pocalypse’, the State Council responded with an Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan. Admitting that air quality in parts of the country was “grim”, the blueprint set targets for improvements in a number of cities. It also mandated pollution controls in areas like fuel quality and regional coal caps. Likewise it instructed municipal authorities to be ready with emergency ‘pollution-response’ plans.

Nationally there was a new target: coal is to account for 65% or less of national power generation by 2017 (it made up 67% of power supply last year) while non-fossil fuel energy should contribute 13% of the total on the same deadline (the previous goal was 15% by 2020).

On top of these directives, provinces and cities have been issuing plans of their own. The capital city is at the forefront, with growing embarrassment at Beijing’s environmental crisis. Foul air is being blamed for a 10% fall in tourist visits last year, for instance, and has been cited in various studies that link lower life expectancy to the contaminated surroundings.

More specifically the State Council’s action plan targeted three of China’s most prosperous regions for action, ordering that no more coal-burning power plants should be built in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei cluster, the Yangtze River Delta and the Pearl River Delta (although more modern, combined heat-and-power-plants may still get approvals).

In another indication that pollution is being looked at through a wider lens – because solutions can’t be isolated at metropolitan level – the State Council also announced clampdowns on a variety of smokestack industries near the cities concerned.

For the capital, the focus is mostly on Hebei province, regularly home to seven out of 10 of China’s most polluted cities and a major contributor to smog that drifts hundreds of miles. The older, most polluting plants and factories are the ones in the spotlight (Hebei has been told to cut 15 million tonnes of its older steel capacity this year and 60 million tonnes by 2017) and Hebei’s governor Zhang Qingwei kept up the pressure last month, warning bureaucrats they will be fired if new plants are found in their fiefdoms.

So the mood is changing, even if the air isn’t?

There does seem to be more momentum in the capital at least, with another round of announcements in January in which Beijing’s mayor promised an “all out effort” this year, according to Xinhua.

These included new measures banning coal-burning boilers within the Fifth Ring Road (which surrounds some of the most built-up areas of the capital) and new fines for drivers of heavily polluting vehicles.

The mayor also promised that Beijing’s coal consumption would be reduced by another 2.6 million tonnes and that municipal authorities would spend a further Rmb15 billion ($2.47 billion) on improving air quality too.

Wider monitoring of pollution is one of the brighter spots among the new initiatives. Since the start of the year 15,000 factories have been forced to provide regular information on their emissions, which should offer important new data on why the air has been deteriorating so badly. “It was way beyond our expectations that the government actually said yes,” Ma Jun, head of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing told the Washington Post on news that reporting was working in real-time. “I am quite amazed.”

By early January 179 cities were disclosing air quality levels, the IPE also reports, a three-fold increase on a year ago. “Real-time information disclosure at such a huge scale has no precedent worldwide,” Ma told Chinadialogue, an environmental news blog. “Although the smog situation has worsened over the last year, the action taken by the government to introduce real-time information disclosure provides a new option for better environmental governance.”

How long is it going to take to see an improvement?

China says its experience isn’t dissimilar to countries like Britain, Japan and America, which chased economic growth for years before beginning to address some of the environmental impact.

On some metrics the comparisons are probably correct, According to The Economist China’s cities are experiencing air quality similar to Japan’s in the 1960s. But others disagree, especially about the spread of harmful airborne particulates, which seems to be worse in China than other countries at similar stages of their development.

Nor is the clean up effort going to deliver quick results. Last year’s Talking Point mentioned clean air legislation that targeted London’s pea soup fogs in the 1950s. But the smog still didn’t disappear overnight, with hundreds of Londoners dying from noxious air well into the 1960s.

Other countries took years to accept that preventing pollution is usually cheaper than cleaning it up – although there is an argument that the scale of the environmental crisis facing the Chinese means that they need to learn the lesson faster than most.

Liu Jianqiang, Beijing editor of the Chinadialogue blog, is one of those frustrated by the pace of change, seeing 2013 as “another year of disappointment”. One of his main complaints is that local governments are failing to respond to directives. “From top to bottom, it’s still a GDP-first approach, sacrificing the environment for economic growth,” Liu warns. “Behind the smog are local governments hell-bent on proving their worth through GDP increases.”

Here, incentives will need to change so that local governments are measured on environmental goals and not just economic ones. There are a few signs that this is starting to happen. Xinhua has reported that some local governments are being required to sign “liability contracts” and provinces which fail to meet emission reduction targets will see their officials “invited for a talk” with the Party departments that oversee promotions, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Those found not to have fulfilled their duties are going to be held responsible, Wang Jian, a pollution prevention official at the ministry, told Xinhua.

But other environmental staffers complain that there is little that they can do unless the bigger picture changes. “We’ve been getting any number of calls from the media and the public, some of them very offensive,” one official told China Times. “But in reality there’s a limit to what we can do.”

So energy policy is key?

The general consensus is that China cannot address its pollution problem without reducing its addiction to coal, which fuels about two-thirds of national power supply.

That’s one of the main conclusions drawn by HSBC’s Natural Resources and Energy team in a major research piece last month called China’s Choking Point. Emissions from coal, it says, generate more than 60% of China’s particulate matter pollution, 70% of its sulphur dioxide, half of its nitrogen oxides and more than a third of its carbon dioxide.

But the bolder premise in the report is that coal’s share in China’s energy mix could be reduced more quickly than many think. In fact, in the most radical of its envisaged scenarios, HSBC speculates that China could duplicate Beijing’s experience at a national level by stopping the building of all new coal-fired power plants from 2016 onwards.

Of course, coal-fired power isn’t going to suddenly disappear. As China’s economy grows, it is demanding more and more energy. Power projects currently under construction are going to deliver 42GW of new coal-fired capacity into the grid each year between 2016 and 2020 (to put that in perspective: 42GW is about 5% of the current coal-based capacity).

But steps could be taken to limit further new-builds after 2016 or even to stop them completely, HSBC says.

How would China fill the energy gap? Getting its existing power stations closer to utilisation levels in Australia, the US or even India would help. There are productivity gains in getting closer to full capacity too. Less coal is needed to generate greater energy output, with fewer emissions as a result.

But HSBC believes that other energy sources have to play more of a role too. Nuclear is one, as well as hydropower, currently the largest alternative source of energy. The installation of wind and solar capacity could be increased rapidly – perhaps even beating the government’s own forecasts. Wind power is set to contribute the largest gain (potentially 240GW of capacity in 2020 the bank forecasts, compared to 61GW at end of 2012). HSBC says wind is close to generating energy at the same cost as coal, if a carbon charge is factored into the equation.

Solar power will also be boosted dramatically (it could make up 122GW of capacity by 2020, HSBC says, up from 3GW at the end of 2012). In part that’s because the Chinese can install solar farms more cheaply than other countries.

Refitting power stations to burn gas rather than coal also cuts emissions in half, although HSBC thinks gas capacity will grow more in line with official forecasts of 7GW a year to reach about 90GW of capacity by 2020.

But as demand for gas grows, China needs to source more of it. International pipelines will help (a new Burmese pipeline mentioned in WiC199 is now operational) and shipments by sea are going to increase as new LNG depots are built. Chinese utility Huadian has just invested in a Canadian LNG project, for example, which will export 22 million tonnes of LNG a year from 2018.

Huadian’s gas plants generate just 5% of its total energy output, but it aims to double that by 2020.

There’s also the option to develop China’s shale gas reserves (see WiC151 for a backgrounder, or WiC207 for more on the challenges in exploiting them).

Coal-to-gas energy is another alternative. But it also encapsulates some of the dilemmas facing energy policymakers. Because of China’s ample coal reserves, synthetic production is one of the simplest ways to meet rising gas demand (extreme heat and pressure gasify the coal into pipeline-ready methane). At least 14 new coal-powered gas plants were approved last year and the first supplies were piped eastwards from a facility in Xinjiang last August.

Since the coal is being burned away from urban areas, mostly in remote locations in northwestern China or Inner Mongolia, the gas is being classified as cleaner energy. But coal-to-gas plants generate much more greenhouse gas than conventional ones and are similarly unfriendly for water resources, especially as most of the new production is located in some of the driest parts of the country.

That leaves most environmental experts warning against too great a shift towards the technology. They cite studies like the one from Yang Chi-Jen and Robert Jackson at Duke University, which suggest that the process produces between 36% to 82% more greenhouse gas than electricity from coal-fired plants (when the entire lifecycle of mining the coal and converting it into gas is taken into account).

The coal-to-gas conundrum highlights two challenges for China: the temptation to persist with coal despite the dirtier outcomes; and the trade-offs in trying to disperse the worst of the city pollution.

The danger is that the coal-to-gas solution pushes pollution into new corners of China rather than resolving the underlying problem: how to deal with the economy’s soaring appetite for energy.

But even here the Chinese experience isn’t wholly new. Michael McElroy, a professor of environmental studies at Harvard University, told the New York Times last year that American towns wrestled with similar smog in the 1950s. The response was to build taller chimneys so that smoke would be carried further away (the motto: “the solution to pollution is dilution”) but larger smokestacks then contributed to the acid rain that fell on the northeastern US and parts of Canada for years. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when Washington adopted a cap-and-trade programme, that the causes of pollution were addressed in a more fundamental way.

For China’s government the threat is existential. While the Party has faced many tests since coming to power in 1949, pollution is a different type of challenge; moreover this is the first generation of policymakers who have been forced to wrestle with it. Few will be feeling the pressure more than Wang Anshun, Beijing’s mayor. On January 18 he pledged to the media that the city’s PM2.5 levels would be brought down to 60 by 2017 (the measure topped 600 on some days last month). Wang finished with a flourish too, declaring, “Ti tou lai jian”, or ‘If I cannot finish the task, then I will cut off my own head’.

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