China is not only one of the greatest polluters worldwide, but it is also the most polluted country. According to the World Bank, 16 of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China. The use of coal power plants to generate electricity is massively responsible for environmental degradation. This situation is a source of concern for the population and forces the government to overhaul its energy production model.
Big concerns in urban areas
Pollution in China kills at least 300,000 people every year. Within the last decade, lung cancers have increased by 60% to become the leading cause of death, and asthma spreads extremely quickly. This was a genuine taboo for a long time, as the Chinese government even refused to accurately measure the actual pollution rate in big cities. For instance, in Beijing the American embassy took responsibility for performing adequate measurements for years. However, in March 2012, the Chinese government announced it would measure particulate matter emissions (particles smaller than 2.5 microns) in the 31 biggest cities. So far only particles over 10 microns had been measured. This new stance aims not only at addressing popular discontent, but also at complying with WHO (World Health Organization) recommendations.
70% of Chinese electricity comes from coal plants
China is sitting on a treasure: below its soil are 13.6% of world coal reserves. This natural resource is unfortunately extremely polluting: 1,400 coal power plants release significant amounts of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), mercury and fine particles (i.e. whose diameter is inferior to 10 microns). Since China consumes as much coal as Europe, Japan and the United States combined, electricity-induced pollution seems to become a huge national issue.
By way of comparison, coal, when used in power plants to produce electricity, generates 35% more carbon dioxide than petroleum and 72% more than natural gas. Burning coal thus causes most SO2 and NO2 emissions in China. Besides, burning four tonnes of coal generates one tonne of toxic ashes that partly end up in the air. The reason China uses coal so massively is because its resources are tremendous, but also because coal is one of the oldest known power sources; it is now perfectly controlled, which makes it a cheap energy source.
Reshaping electricity production rather than optimizing coal burning
The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects that 39% of the worldwide increase in CO2 emissions by 2030 will be due to China, whose coal-induced emissions will more than double. Rather than attempting to curb coal-related pollution, the Chinese government seems to be committed to varying its electricity sources. The last Five-Year Plan includes a 300 billion-euro government grant on renewable energy (see our article).
Given its huge coal resources, one may have expected that China would invest in “clean coal” technologies, such as supercritical and gasification plants. Not only do they improve the energy efficiency of coal burning, but they also significantly decrease the discharge of toxic particles. But today China seems unlikely to experiment with such expensive high technology, as it is about to become the world leader on renewable energy.
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