The issue of how much China is really doing to fight climate change has arisen here before. One section from Barbara Freese’s book on coal provides some information pertinent to that discussion. She argues that the Chinese government has made great efforts to improve energy efficiency. Between 1996 and 1999, the Chinese economy grew by a startling 36%, while total energy use fell by 17% and greenhouse gas emissions fell by 14%.
One motivation for an official shift towards reduced coal usage is the sheer number of deaths from air pollution. While coal-fired power plants in the United States probably kill a few tens of thousands of people per year, those in China likely kill around one million. Indeed, it is estimated that one in eight deaths in China is the consequence of coal use – whether from particulate emissions, sulfur dioxide, reduced indoor air quality, mercury toxicity, or other factors.
That said, Freese acknowledges that continued economic growth is likely to reverse that trend, unless China commits itself aggressively to a low-carbon approach to development. That choice is very important to human welfare around the world and needs to be made soon. There are coal plants in the United States that have been operating since the 1920s. The world cannot afford for China to continue to deploy coal-fired power plants that cause such climatic damage, and which may prove equally enduring.