Despite a continued decline in coal consumption, Beijing’s air quality index still registers stubbornly unhealthy numbers. Now, the city of 11.5 million says it plans to accelerate the fight against smog.
According to China’s official news wire service, Beijing Mayor Cai Qi said the city will adopt “extra” anti-smog measures in 2017 -- including cutting back on coal.
The move comes as evidence continues to suggest that China’s notoriously poor air quality is negatively affecting the country’s economy. For example, CNBC was one of many news outlets to report a 2016 RAND study suggesting that smog and other forms of pollution cost China 6.5 percent of its GDP annually.
In recent years the Chinese government has implemented an aggressive air pollution plan in order to reduce smog and, specifically, the noxious particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less (PM2.5) that can cause a bevy of respiratory health problems.
NGOs such as Greenpeace noted that such anti-pollution measures were working, as the air quality across much of Eastern China improved during 2014 and 2015. But over the past few months PM2.5 levels have edged up again in Beijing.
Meanwhile, over the weekend, the official Chinese press agency Xinhua reported that 591,000 people in China die from lung cancer annually. If the country cannot improve its cities’ air quality fast enough, estimates suggest the annual number of deaths from lung cancer could reach 800,000 by 2020. And China’s youth are paying for the country’s addiction to coal: Emissions from coal plants were linked to as many as 250,000 premature deaths across the country in 2013, the Guardian reported.
The mayor’s directive comes at a time when China has increasingly moved toward natural gas and renewables in order to slash its reliance on coal. According to one official Chinese news source, Beijing’s coal consumption reached a staggering 26.4 million metric tons in 2010. But that number has steadily declined year after year.
In December, Xinhua reported that the amount of coal used to fire power plants declined to 10 million metric tons last year. And Beijing claimed the use of cleaner fuels prevented the emissions of 39,000 million metric tons of soot and 21,000 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.
Beijing will reportedly decrease its consumption of coal by about 30 percent this year, or down to 7 million metric tons. In addition, Scientific American reported that the city plans to remove 300,000 older cars from the roads in a move to boost fuel-efficiency standards and promote cars powered by electricity and other alternative fuels.
But as Beijing shuttered coal plants, it has also turned to importing power from other cities, which raises concerns that utilities are simply outsourcing their emissions to other provinces. In addition, while China strengthened its air pollution laws in the years following the 2008 Summer Olympics, critics replied that the actual enforcement of such laws is far too weak.
Much work lies ahead if China is going to repair the damage done to its environment the past few decades as the focus on economic development superseded any concerns over the long-term damage to the country’s economy. But in recent years, China has emerged as a global clean energy leader, and last month, the country’s leadership announced that it would invest at least $360 billion in renewable power generation by 2020.
Image credit: Ilya Haykinson/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.