China under mounting public and economic pressure to cut coal faster


With a new report showing 1.6 million people are dying each year from air pollution-triggered heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and asthma, and environmental protests escalating, China is under increasing pressure to clean up its economy and hasten the transition to clean renewable energy. Infamous for its air pollution – most of which comes from burning coal – China has begun shutting down coal plants, adopting air quality standards, introducing monitoring stations and cleaner standards for transportation fuel, and moving factories out of cities. Air quality has measurably improved, but not only do Beijing and its surrounding regions still face serious pollution issues, costly extreme weather events are also being linked to the pollution, with scientists linking air quality to extreme floods that devastated Sichuan in 2013. Cleaning up China’s air is expected to cost at least US$1 trillion every year for at least the next five years, but considering the dire health, environmental, climate, and $2.6 billion cost of rising sea levels burning coal creates, a rapid shift in development path for the nation is the only way forward.


Key Points

  • With over a million people dying from air pollution impacts a year, China is under increasing pressure to clean up its economy. According to a new report from Berkeley Earth, air pollution causes 1.6 million deaths a year – about one sixth of all premature deaths in the country. It is overwhelmingly mostly caused by the burning of coal, and aside from the health impacts, air pollution has also been linked to devastating floods, showing yet more indirect, externalised costs of burning coal.
  • China’s efforts to clean up its air are already paying dividends, but it needs to hit the accelerator hard to get away from coal and avoid mounting public anger about pollution. According to a recent study by China Clean Air Association, air quality has improved due to strong measures adopted at provincial and city levels, though Beijing and its surrounding regions still faced serious pollution problems. China pledged to meet World Health Organisation air quality standards when hosting 2020 Winter Olympics, and to achieve its emissions peak at around 2030, but its reliance on coal is hurting its goals. China needs to accelerate its transition to clean energies in a carbon constrained world.


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Key Quotes

  • “When I was last in Beijing, pollution was at the hazardous level: Every hour of exposure reduced my life expectancy by 20 minutes. It’s as if every man, woman and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes each hour.” – Richard Muller, scientific director of Berkeley Earth and a co-author of the paper
  • “The PM2.5 concentrations far exceed standards, endangering people’s health, though air quality has improved in the first half in the 358 Chinese cities.” – Dong Liansai, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia
  • “A coal cap policy will provide low-carbon development efforts with substantial investment. It can increase employment opportunities in the finance service industries and other service industries. The development of the service industry will promote improvements in China’s industrial structure and provide new employment opportunities for the unemployed. A coal cap is not just a short term policy; its long-term societal benefits are astonishing.” – Dr. Yang Fuqiang, NRDC’s Senior Advisor for Energy, Environment, and Climate

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