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August 28, 2014
Addressing Pollution a Top Priority for Development in China
    by Robert Kropp

The China Greentech Report 2014 finds that sustainable development, once considered an optional approach, is now a prerequisite as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases struggles with pollution in its cities.

China's ambitious strategies for economic growth have come at a high price for the global environment and the nation itself. Its emphasis on coal to power development has resulted in it passing the United States as the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs); because coal provides about 80% of its electricity, China is responsible for half the growth of global emissions over the past ten years.

Air pollution in Chinese cities has had a devastating effect on residents as well. According to Greenpeace East Asia, “Pollution from the 196 coal-fired power plants in the capital region of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei caused 9,900 premature deaths and nearly 70,000 outpatient visits or hospitalizations during 2011. 75% of the premature deaths are caused by the 152 coal-fired power plants in Hebei Province.”

“Air pollution will remain a serious problem in China as long as coal continues to be the country's major energy source,” the nongovernmental organization (NGO) continued.

In the recently published China Greentech Report 2014, the China Greentech Initiative acknowledges that prioritizing “national priorities like economic growth and energy security” at the expense of the environment has led China into an air pollution crisis. “Northern China’s air pollution in the winters of 2013 and 2014 triggered a chain of trend-setting events: a surge in hospital admissions related to respiratory illness, a storm of public opinion on social media platforms, and a hike in demand for transparent air quality data,” the report states.

In 2012, the Chinese government produced the Five-Year Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control in Key Regions. However, as the report points out, one pollution reduction strategy—the development of coal-to-gas plants—actually resulted in increased emissions. Furthermore, the process of converting low-quality coal to natural gas is much more water-intensive, a significant issue considering that some of the plants have been built in China's most water stressed regions.

On the other hand, “several developments in late 2013 and early 2014 suggest that the government is increasingly committed to pollution reduction,” the report continues. Perhaps of most significance was the April, 2014, updating of the nation's Environmental Protection Law, the first such update since 1989. In March, Premier Li Keqiang declared a “war on pollution”; and, according to the report, “the revision represents a step forward for environmental governance.”

Also, “Public participation is becoming an increasingly important driver for environmental protection, with access to data playing a decisive role in driving forward pollution reduction efforts,” the report continues. “In the past six years, improved access to pollution data has provided the public with the tools needed to compel the government to reassess the nation’s development model and follow through on pollution reduction promises.”

The report also details recent increases in the deployment of alternative energy sources such as wind and especially solar, and notes a promising outlook for distributed energy as well.

According to a Greenpeace media briefing published in the aftermath of the environmental law revisions, China's air pollution action plans could result in reductions in coal use amounting to as much as 1,300 million tons by 2020.

If such reductions are actually realized, Greenpeace continued, China's CO2 emissions by 2020 would be “close to a trajectory that the International Energy Agency says would be in line with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.”


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