China leads the way out of coal smog and into clean renewables

Red lantern blowing in the wind
FlickrVladimir Yaitskiy
China is cutting back on air pollution, possibly faster than any other country in the world is doing.

When the government of China vowed to bring the vast country out of poverty through modernization, it seized upon the energy source that was cheap and domestically abundant: coal. It then developed and implemented a massive plan involving the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power plants that would be needed to energize the economic explosion. China now has about 620 coal-fired plants, about 27 percent of the world’s total.

Unfortunately, this happened at roughly the same time that the rest of the world was coming to grips with the fact that emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, particularly coal, were wreaking havoc on the delicate blend of gases in the upper atmosphere that serve to regulate the Earth’s temperature.

Responding to expressions of consternation from the global community, the Chinese vowed to get off coal as soon as they could, which was received with plenty of hand-wringing as to whether that would be soon enough.

China breathes a sigh of smog relief

A lot has changed since then, including the recent agreement signed with President Barack Obama, in which China promised to hit peak carbon emissions by 2030 and begin declining after that. But another factor has been quietly, though not invisibly lurking in the background: pollution. Air pollution is bad enough in some Chinese cities that many citizens have taken to wearing masks to protect them from fine particles.

PM2.5 particle pollution (smog) is so bad that several Chinese cities are experiencing 100 days or more per year with PM2.5 levels two to four times the WHO safety guidelines. This pollution comes from the combustion of fuels. The Chinese have had no choice but to cut back on coal burning.

A new report from Greenpeace’s Energy Desk/China shows a drop in Chinese coal consumption of as much as 8 percent. This translates into a 5 percent drop in CO2. To give a sense of the size of this decrease, it’s roughly equivalent to the total emissions produced by the U.K. over that same time period. It is the second recorded drop in coal use.

Domestic Chinese coal consumption fell by almost 3 percent last year, which suggests that this trend is accelerating. If this trend continues, it likely will be the largest drop in both coal use and carbon dioxide emissions in any country. That’s the kind of record we like to see broken.

Big changes in the energy sector

This comes amidst news of a major overhaul of China’s energy sector. The government also has ordered over 1,200 coal mines to close. The move is said to be aimed at eliminating excess capacity and encourage the use of renewables.

Speaking of which, China spent a whopping $83 billion on renewables (PDF) last year. Not only was that a record that exceeded the previous year’s spend by 39 percent, it’s also more than twice what the U.S. spent over the same period.

The days of using China as an excuse for inaction on climate change have passed. China is grabbing both the moral and the technological high ground.

This article first appeared at Justmeans.

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