This article is from the In-Depth Report December 2008 Earth 3.0: Solutions for Sustainable Progress

Clean Cities and Dirty Coal Power--China's Energy Paradox

China is aggressively building cleaner cities and renewable power supplies, but the relentless expansion of dirty coal may suffocate those efforts. A firsthand look

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CHONGQING—This year china surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. And coal is largely to blame. The dirty black rock is burned everywhere, from industrial boilers to home stoves, and generates 75 percent of the nation’s electricity. More than 4,000 miners die every year digging the fossil fuel out of China’s heartland. One consequence of the country’s reliance on coal is most visible in the air. Smog cloaks cities, reducing the sky to little more than a blue patch amid a blanket of haze. As the pollution builds, it forms a brown cloud, visible from space, that in a week’s time crosses the Pacific Ocean to the western U.S., where it accounts for as much as 15 percent of the air pollution.

The haze means no true horizon can be seen when one is walking the streets of Chong­qing, an inland port city on the Yangtze River that produces most of China’s motorcycles as well as other industrial goods. It seems the entire Rust Belt of the U.S. has been crammed into this “furnace of China,” as it is known—a single community of more than 30 million people, twice the size of the New York City metropolitan region.

Chongqing’s men, women and children breathe air filled with lung-clogging soot and smoke. Nationally, health care associated with respiratory ills costs China an estimated $100 billion a year, according to the World Bank. Furthermore, the foul air can literally stunt the growth of the next generation, according to recent research from Frederica P. Perera of Columbia University and her Chinese colleagues.

The Chinese have been burning coal for centuries. They now consume 2.5 billion tons a year—more than double that of the U.S.—and imports are rising despite extensive domestic mining. In 2007 the country’s 541 coal-fired power plants pumped out 554,420 megawatts of electricity, according to the Chinese State Electricity Regulatory Commission—roughly equivalent to the output of 550 large nuclear reactors. On average, China opens one coal-fired plant every week to serve its 1.3 billion people and the massive industries that manufacture cheap goods, largely for the U.S. and Europe.

Notwithstanding its deeply polluted state, China is also working feverishly to clean up. It plans to reduce pollutants by as much as 10 percent over the next five years. Part of the effort involves creating carbon-neutral cities and expanding renewable energy sources, as described in the stories that follow. Much of the strategy, however, is simply to shutter small, inefficient coal plants and replace them with larger ones that are more efficient. “To close small plants, it will be very effective to improve air quality,” Sarah Liang, a spokesperson in Greenpeace’s Beijing office, tells me. But that still leaves a load of pollution.

Greener Generation
Despite the surfeit of soot, the average Chinese citizen accounts for a mere fraction of the greenhouse emissions of the average American. Sheer population overcomes the small
per capita number, however, and the country is not bound by any international treaty to reduce its pollution. Nevertheless, the government has at least started to tackle the problem by launching a pilot project to capture and store the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from burning coal at a demonstration power plant dubbed GreenGen.

The project, in the Yellow Sea port city of Tianjin northeast of here, will proceed in three phases. First, a consortium of power and coal companies will construct a so-called integrated gasification combined cycle power plant. In this design, coal is converted into a gas, and pollutants are removed before the gas is burned. Such technology could cut acid rain–causing sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent and smog-forming nitrous oxides by 75 percent—as well as capturing more than 80 percent of the CO2 emitted by 2015 and storing it in nearby depleted oil fields.

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This article was originally published with the title "China's Energy Paradox."

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