MAC: Mines and Communities

China update: coal

Published by MAC on 2007-11-16

China update: coal

16th November 2007

China's coal fired power stations are showering particulates and mercury as far afield as the US, according to some scientists. A new database claims that the country's power plant emissions will rise by 60% between now and 2017.

Meanwhile, the regime says that output of sulphur dioxide, and rates of chemical oxygen demand - a water pollution indicator - have diminished, albeit slightly.

The dark side of coal

By MICHAEL CASEY, AP Environmental Writer

11th November 2007

TAIYUAN, China (AP) — It takes five to 10 days for the pollution from China's coal-fired plants to make its way to the United States, like a slow-moving storm.

It shows up as mercury in the bass and trout caught in Oregon's Willamette River. It increases cloud cover and raises ozone levels. And along the way, it contributes to acid rain in Japan and South Korea and health problems everywhere from Taiyuan to the United States.

This is the dark side of the world's growing use of coal.

Cheap and abundant, coal has become the fuel of choice in much of the world, powering economic booms in China and India that have lifted millions of people out of poverty. Worldwide demand is projected to rise by about 60 percent through 2030 to 6.9 billion tons a year, most of it going to electrical power plants.

But the growth of coal-burning is also contributing to global warming, and is linked to environmental and health issues ranging from acid rain to asthma. Air pollution kills more than 2 million people prematurely, according to the World Health Organization.

"Hands down, coal is by far the dirtiest pollutant," said Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington who has detected pollutants from Asia at monitoring sites on Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Cheeka Peak in Washington state. "It is a pretty bad fuel on all scores."

To understand the conflict over coal, look at Taiyuan and the surrounding Shanxi Province, the country's top coal-producing region — and one of its most polluted.

Almost overnight, coal has turned poor farmers in this city of 3 million people into Mercedes-driving millionaires, known derisively as "baofahu" or the quick rich. Flashy hotels display chunks of coal in the lobby, and sprawling malls advertise designer goods from Versace and Karl Lagerfeld. Real estate prices have doubled, residents say, and construction cranes fill the skyline.

A museum in Taiyuan celebrates all things coal. Amid photos of smiling miners, coal is presented as the foundation of the country's economic development, credited with making possible everything from the railroad to skin care products.

"Today, coal has penetrated into every aspect of people's lives," the museum says in one of many cheery pronouncements. "We can't live comfortably without coal."

Yet the cornstalks lining a highway outside the city 254 miles southwest of Beijing are covered in soot. The same soot settles on vegetables sold at the roadside, and the thick, acrid smoke blots out the morning sun. At its worst, the haze forces highway closures and flight delays.

With pressure to clean up major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, particularly in the run-up to next year's Beijing Olympics, the central government is turning increasingly to provinces such as Shanxi to meet the country's power demands.

"They look at polluted places like Taiyuan and say it's so polluted there so it doesn't matter if they have another five power plants," said Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior fellow at Resources For the Future, an American think tank that found links between air pollution and rising hospital admissions in Taiyuan.

"I visited these power plants and there is no concept of pollution control," he said. "They sort of had a laugh and asked, 'Why would you expect us to install pollution control equipment?"'

China is home to 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities, according to a World Bank report.

Health costs related to air pollution total $68 billion a year, nearly 4 percent of the country's economic output, the report said. And acid rain has contaminated a third of the country, Sheng Huaren, a senior Chinese parliamentary official, said last year. It is said to destroy some $4 billion worth of crops every year.

"What we are facing in China is enormous economic growth, and ... China is paying a price for it," said Henk Bekedam, the country representative for the World Health Organization. "Their growth is not sustainable from an environmental perspective. The good news is that they realize it. The bad news is they're dependent on coal as an energy source."

But the costs go far beyond China. The soot from power plants boosts global warming because coal emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. And researchers from Texas A&M University found that air pollution from China and India has increased in cloud cover and major Pacific Ocean storms by 20 percent to 50 percent over the past 20 years.

"We know dust from factories in China, India, Mexico and Africa does not simply disappear; the wind brings it here," said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Bill Kovacs.

Kovacs said overseas dust is adding to the number of counties that do not qualify for federal transportation funds because they are out of compliance with ozone standards. More than 100 counties do not meet the limit of 84 parts per billion. China alone contributes 3 to 5 parts per billion, estimates Daniel J. Jacob, professor of atmospheric chemistry and environmental engineering at Harvard University.

Mercury, a byproduct of some coal-mining, is another major concern. The potent toxin falls into waterways and shows up in fish. Asia's contribution to U.S. mercury levels has shot up over the past 20 years. Jacob estimated half of the mercury in the United States comes from overseas, especially China.

"It's a global problem and right now China is a source on the rise," he said. "If we want to bring down mercury levels in fish, then we have to go after emissions in East Asia."

A fifth of the mercury in the Willamette River came from China and other foreign sources, said Bruce K. Hope of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Pregnant or nursing women who eat the fish put their babies at risk of neurological damage.

"It's frustrating to realize that part of your problem is someone else's behavior and you can't really go to them and say, 'Can you do something different?"' Hope said.

China has closed some polluting factories and says it will retire 50 gigawatts of inefficient power plants, or 8 percent of the total power grid, by 2010, according to the Pew Center for Global Climate Change. The government has also mandated that solar, wind, hydroelectric and other forms of renewable energy provide 10 percent of the nation's power by 2010, and ordered key industries to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent.

President Hu Jintao, in a speech to a key party congress last month, promised a cleanup. But China has fallen short of its national targets for using energy more efficiently, and coal remains a major energy source.

"Everyone knows coal is dirty, but there is no way that China can get rid of coal," the World Bank's Zhao Jianping said in Beijing. "It must rely on it for years to come, until humans can find a new magic solution."

Robert N. Schock, the director of studies for the World Energy Council, agreed that coal, cheap and abundant, will remain a crucial source of energy for many years and be crucial to improving living standards in developing countries.

"Twenty-five percent of the world's electric power is now generated by coal, and those plants are not likely to disappear overnight," Schock said.

In Shanxi province, authorities have pledged to close 900 coal mines and dozens of makeshift factories that process coal for the steel industry, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The Asian Development Bank is providing more than $200 million in loans to improve air quality in the province, through programs to shift to cleaner-burning natural gas for household heating and a demonstration project to capture methane, a greenhouse gas released in coal mining.

Taiyuan, dubbed the world's most polluted city in the 1990s, is no longer thought to be the worst, thanks to various efforts including phasing out coal-burning boilers. But the level of pollutants in the air remains five to 10 times higher than levels in New York or London. Residents say they see blue skies fewer than 120 days a year.

Australians Paul and Helen Douglas, who work for Evergreen in Taiyuan, an American social service agency, said their 21-month-old daughter Rose has been found in tests to have elevated lead levels. She has developed a chronic cough, Paul Douglas said, and the family will likely return to Australia before their contract ends if their daughter's toxin levels rise further.

"People say we are irresponsible and that we are making decisions that are injuring our children," he said of coming under fire from relatives and church members for staying in Taiyuan.

Taiyuan residents, though, shrug wearily when the talk turns to pollution, fearful that speaking out could get them in trouble. But when pressed, the complaints tumble forth and expose a community held hostage by the soot.

Residents seal their windows to keep out the dirty air. Parents are warned not to let their toddlers play outside, for fear of being covered in coal dust. Fruits and vegetables must be washed in detergent.

"I'm worried about my children," said a woman who lives in the shadow of a power plant and fertilizer factory. She would only give her surname, Zhang. "We worry about everything. If you get sick seriously, you will die."

Many complain of chronic sore throats, bronchitis, lung cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. One study, by researchers at Norway's Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, found Taiyuan's pollution increased death rates by 15 percent and chronic respiratory ailments by 40 to 50 percent.

"I feel terrible and I'm coughing all the time," said William Li, a retired engineer from Taiyuan. His father died of lung cancer and his son has tracheitis, an upper respiratory condition. "The coal, it produces electric power that we send to other provinces. But we are left with the pollution."

China Power Plant Emissions to Rise 60 Pct by 2017

PlanetArk US

15th November 2007

WASHINGTON - Climate-warming emissions from China's power plants -- already among the world's worst greenhouse polluters -- will rise by some 60 percent in the next decade, a new global database showed on Wednesday.

Four Chinese power companies, including the biggest carbon dioxide emitter, Huaneng Power International, were among the top 10 on the database; there were two each from the United States and Germany and one each from South Africa and India.

The numbers show that despite international talk about cutting down on emissions that spur global warming, these emissions are going to rise steeply for the next 10 years, said David Wheeler of the Washington-based Center for Global Development, a nonpartisan think tank that compiled the database.

"Although our politics seem to be headed toward some new understanding and action here, the investment picture that we see right now ... is a continued large-scale commitment to coal-fired production, which is the most intensive in CO2 (carbon dioxide) pollution," Wheeler said by telephone.

This trend will occur not only in the fast-developing economies of China and India, but also in the United States and to some extent in western Europe, he said.

The database -- dubbed CARMA, for Carbon Monitoring for Action, and available online at -- lists carbon emissions from 50,000 power plants around the world, with figures for the year 2000, 2007, and five to 10 years in the future, based on published plans.


By 2017, China will far outpace the United States, the current leader in power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, the database found.

While China's future power generation will be less carbon-intensive, getting more electricity for proportionally lower emissions, this comes at an environmental cost, the database's creators said.

China will use more nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse pollution but poses a challenge for safe disposal of spent fuel, and get more electricity from the Three Gorges Dam, which environmentalists say will trap silt, cause erosion and risk turning its reservoir into a pond of industrial chemicals and sewage.

The database was released less than a month before a December meeting of climate experts in Bali, Indonesia, meant to chart a course to cut global warming emissions. It also coincides with intensifying debate in the US Congress over a bill to put mandatory limits on carbon emissions.

Internationally, the US power sector is the top emitter, spewing nearly 2.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually; China follows closely at 2.7 billion tonnes, with Russia at 661 million tonnes, India at 583 million tonnes and Japan at 400 million tonnes. Germany, Australia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and South Korea round out the top 10.

Wheeler noted that the top executives of the 100 biggest power companies worldwide preside over plants that emit 57 percent of all emissions from this sector, giving them extraordinary influence.

"Despite the fact that we talk about national negotiations on this issue ... when all is said and done, those who make the decisions about investments and future technologies are people like those 100 CEOs," Wheeler said. "That's a critical group and I think they should be engaged."

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

Story by Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent


China Says Key Pollution Levels Nudge Down

PlanetArk CHINA

16th November2007

BEIJING - Two key measures of pollution in China have fallen slightly in what the country's environmental regulator claimed was a victory for its clean-up procedures, state media reported on Thursday.

Emissions of sulphur dioxide, which belches from smokestacks and causes acid rain, fell by 1.81 percent in the first nine months of 2007 compared with the same period last year, the China Daily reported.

COD, or chemical oxygen demand, a measure of water pollution, dropped by 0.28 percent, the paper said.

Many Chinese cities are enveloped in choking smog, including 2008 Olympic host Beijing. The level of air pollution in the capital and its possible effects on athletes' health has been one of the biggest issues facing organisers of next year's Games.

A recent report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted concerns about air quality in the city although Games organisers have said conditions will be improved by the time of the Olympics next August.

In announcing the latest figures, the head of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), Zhou Shengxian, said they proved that a campaign to clean up polluters was beginning to show an effect.

"These absolutely aren't just games with numbers," he said, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Sulphur dioxide and COD are primitive indicators of overall environmental health, and do not reflect the many other chemicals that have turned China's pollution problem into a domestic political headache and international embarrassment.

Zhou said the latest figures reflected the government's determination to improve the environment.

By the end of September, SEPA had investigated more than 10,000 cases of environmental law violations, and 250 small coal-fired power generation units were shut, he said.

China has promised to cut the two key pollution measures by 10 percent between 2006 and 2010, but last year the country failed to meet the annual target. Zhou said that reaching that target would be tough.

Beijing does not issue statistics for carbon dioxide, the "greenhouse gas" behind global warming.

Carbon dioxide emissions from China's power plants will rise by some 60 percent in the next decade, according to a new global database released in Washington on Wednesday. (Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Jeremy Laurence)


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