CHINA & COAL: Coal provides more than 70 percent of China's energy and will do so for the foreseeable future, which is bad news for greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution. Image: © iStockphoto.com / Alasdair Thompson
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DANDONG, China—The coal burned in the Dandong Power Plant lights up the night all along the Chinese side of the Yalu River, as a rainbow of shifting illuminated patterns outlines the Friendship Bridge to North Korea, which disappears into darkness after crossing the border. And the smoke that billows out of the plant's towering, candy-cane striped smokestack day and night includes nearly three metric tons of invisible carbon dioxide for every metric ton of coal burned, or more than 11,000 metric tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere on just one late autumn day.
Thanks to the Dandong plant and hundreds others like it, China is in the midst of unprecedented economic growth—and an unprecedented surge in the use of energy, primarily from burning coal. Coal is the fuel of China and that isn't going to change anytime soon. As a result, China is now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, along with all the other noxious by-products of coal burning. At the same time, the Chinese government has committed to reducing its CO2 emissions per economic unit by at least 40 percent by 2020. Tasked with ensuring that the nation delivers on that goal is the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the government agency that essentially sets Chinese energy and industrial policy.
"In Manhattan, lights are lit 24 hours and China will never do that," says NDRC vice chairman Zhang Guobao via a translator, although the lights of this border town abutting North Korea blaze well into the night, illuminating businesses that tout their names in both Chinese and Korean characters. "China can never learn from the United States in terms of lifestyle. Per capita energy consumption is five times that of China and suppose, one day, that we learn from the U.S.A.: Can you imagine what the world will be?"
In order to meet the 40 percent reduction goal, for instance, the NDRC has restricted coal-burning at Dandong and other power plants, part of the agency's plan to reduce national coal consumption by 4.9 million metric tons. Dandong's share of that cut was 7,400 metric tons—a goal the plant has met largely through efficiency measures, according to Shi Chun, vice factory director for Dandong Power Plant, including even keeping the lights off inside the plant at night.
But efficiency measures can only go so far as China works to bring hundreds of millions more of its citizens out of poverty. "Asia has become the center of gravity for world energy demand," says Mikkal Herberg, an expert on Asia and energy at the University of California, San Diego. "Seventy percent of total world energy demand growth over the last two decades has been in Asia. China has accounted for over 40 percent of the increase." In fact, China's energy demand has tripled since 1990, and between 2000 and 2007 China's energy demand grew as much as all of South America's energy demand combined. "They created a new continent of energy demand in that period."
With the nation's 12th five-year plan currently being finalized, the question is: Can China continue to grow richer without wrecking the global environment?
"Will China's carbon dioxide emissions overwhelm the world?" notes Mark Levine, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, who has been working in the country for 24 years on energy-efficiency measures. "That's the question."