Consequences of coal in China

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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

3 thoughts on “Consequences of coal in China”

  1. China’s Hobson’s Choice

    Beijing is welcome to ignore its growing environmental problems. But policymakers are finally realizing that if they do they’ll hurt growth too.
    By Rana Foroohar | Newsweek Web Exclusive
    May 24, 2010

    “Yet cleaning up the country’s air and water requires short-term pain—growth will by necessity be slower if polluting factories are shut down and farmers are forced to cut the use of chemicals which raise their crop yields. The financial crisis has only made it tougher to put China on a path to sustainable development. “The crisis increased stimulus money, but this has also increased the pace of development,” notes Dr. Lu Hongyan of the environmental science and engineering department of Sichuan University, who points to the massive infrastructure projects—train lines, new real-estate projects, and the like—now going up all over China, many of them powered by dirty, coal-generated power. And even as China is becoming a leader in green manufacturing (it produces 40 percent of the world’s solar panels and is running many of the top wind-turbine firms), it typically uses high-carbon fossil fuels to churn these products out. “It’s so ironic that we’re using coal power plants to manufacture energy-efficient lights,” says Ma Jun, the founder and director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, a Beijing green NGO.”

  2. 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.

    Coal power plants must save some lives as well, as serious as the air pollution problems they cause are.

    Insofar as they help to produce wealth, they help reduce deaths from poverty. They also probably save some lives directly by providing electricity.

    I am not saying that China should not be working to reduce coal use, but rather that you need to look at both costs and benefits when assessing the overall importance of coal for them.

  3. There are certainly benefits from the electricity that coal-burning provides.

    What is different about them is that they are visible, immediate, and obvious. They get incorporated into political and economic decisions automatically.

    By contrast, deaths from pollution are largely invisible and ignored.

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