Beijing recently announced its second-ever “red alert” for air pollution, as toxic smog again enveloped China’s capital. During the most severe air pollution episode last year, concentrations of the primary pollutants in Beijing last November reached levels nearly 40 times higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe for 24-hour exposure. Air pollution is killing an average of 4,000 people a day in China—as if “every man, woman, and child in China smoked 1.5 cigarettes every hour,” according to independent research group Berkeley Earth.
Beijing’s willingness to issue a red alert is a welcome step. It imposed temporary pollution reduction measures, including restricting vehicle traffic, suspending outdoor construction activities, and shutting down or reducing industrial production, while still allowing people time to prepare for the onslaught. These emergency measures did have a positive impact (the first red alert reduced levels of PM 2.5, the most dangerous pollutant, by about 10%), but they did little to address the primary cause of Beijing’s smog: the coal burned in factories, power plants, and homes outside of central Beijing.
The nearby provinces of Hebei and Shandong, for example, together consumed more coal in 2011 than all of India. As environmental organization Greenpeace put it, “…more coal [was] consumed [in 2011] within 600 kilometers of China’s capital than in the entire United States.” People living in those provinces and in other parts of coal-dependent northern China are exposed to even higher levels of air pollution than Beijing, which is working to close down its coal plants. A 2013 study found that people in northern China may be dying five years sooner due to high levels of air pollution, largely caused by burning coal for heat.
The situation is slowly changing, though it may be hard to see it through the smog. China’s 2013 Air Pollution Prevention Action Plan requires the Beijing region (Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei) to achieve negative coal consumption growth by 2017 by replacing coal with electricity generated from natural gas and non-fossil fuel energy, and by closing down excess iron, steel, cement, and other heavy-industry capacities. The plan is accompanied by targets that would require absolute coal consumption reductions of 13 million tons in Beijing, which aims to be completely coal-free by 2020; 40 million tons in Hebei; and 20 million tons in Shandong. Other key polluted regions along China’s eastern seaboard are facing coal restrictions, too, although a national cap on coal consumption is needed in order to tackle a buildup of new coal plants in China’s less polluted and less regulated western provinces.
China has also tightened its air pollution and environmental protection laws to both speed the transition to cleaner energy and to put powerful new tools in the hands of environmental officials and the public to fight pollution. In the run up to the Paris climate talks, China committed to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 and to make an effort to peak earlier. It pledged to increase non-fossil energy to 20% of its energy mix by 2030, an ambitious target that will require China to install 800 to 1,000 giga-watts of wind, solar, and other non-fossil capacity, equivalent to the U.S.’s current generating capacity. China has already installed 40% of the world's newly added renewable energy power over the past five years and invested in clean and renewable energy that surpasses the U.S. and Europe’s combined investments. China is responsible for over half of the world's energy conservation efforts over the past two decades. And after years of rampant growth, China’s national coal use was essentially flat in 2014 and is on track to fall by nearly 5% in 2015, even as the economy continues to grow.
China’s actions to stem climate change will provide an essential boost to its air pollution control efforts, since the main cause of both is an over-reliance on fossil fuels. Coal is responsible for 80% of China’s CO2 emissions, as well as 50% to 60% of the most damaging form of air pollution. Experts estimate that meeting China’s climate change targets will reduce smog by 42%, but despite the nation’s accomplishments, more is needed to clear the air and prevent another red alert.
In a special report on China’s smog, Bloomberg News put it well: “While the scale of the problem is massive, so is China’s top-down response.” The report outlines four major steps that will help China clear the skies. It includes rebalancing the economy away from coal-powered heavy industry toward the service sector, continuing to increase industrial energy efficiency, shifting the primary energy mix away from coal, and improving end-of-pipe emission reduction efforts.
None of these measures is a quick fix. In fact, most involve a fundamental transformation of China’s economy to one focused on better quality growth, innovation, and environmental sustainability. The good news is that this transformation is already underway—economist Lord Nicholas Stern calls it “China’s new normal.” Indeed, steps now underway are beginning the transition away from fossil-fueled power to cleaner energy in a manner that continues to promote economic growth while driving down carbon emissions.
But China can, and should, move faster to dethrone Old King Coal. Only then can it ensure there will not be more “red alert” days. And only then will it truly protect the health of its citizens from dangerous air pollution and our planet from catastrophic climate change.
Barbara Finamore is a senior attorney and Asia Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.