China’s battle against coal “arduous”, needs greater effort

The shift in China’s energy consumption pattern in its war against pollution requires greater efforts to move away from coal to alternative sources.

Severe smog in as many as 40 northern China cities, which issued red alerts – the most serious in a four-tier pollution warning system – last month raised alarms in a country that mostly uses coal to generate electricity, Chinese media said.

It said though local weather conditions, motor vehicle exhaust and industrial waste contributed to the smog, the biggest culprit was higher coal consumption in the winter months.

Monitored data showed substances directly related to coal burning, including sulfate and black charcoal, were the major components of PM2.5 — airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that can penetrate deep into the lungs.

“Beneath the rising PM2.5 density is the “inconvenient truth” of China’s coal-powered economy: although the country’s coal output fell in 2014 for the first time this century, the volume of nearly 4 billion tonnes is still massive,” Xinhua said.

Coal consumption accounts for about 66 percent of China’s primary energy consumption, 35 percentage points higher than the world average. In the country’s north, where pollution is most rampant, coal use accounted for more than 80 percent of energy consumption.

“The proportion of coal in China’s primary energy mix is equal to that of the global energy structure almost a century ago, which is indeed worrisome, but also means there are opportunities,” Xinhua quoted Huang Xiaoyong, director of the global energy security research center at the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, saying.

China has said it aims to bring the share of non-fossil energy to 15 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2030. In addition, coal consumption will be limited to 62 percent of energy use by 2020. It recently pledged to control new capacity in the coal industry and halt the approval of new mine projects for three years starting in 2016.

But the shift in the energy structure can’t be accomplished in the short term, Xinhua warned.

China’s reliance on coal is a result of the country’s resource distribution — rich in coal but poor in oil and gas — and its need to maintain economic growth and energy security. Development of other alternatives such as renewables will take time to gain enough ground.

“It took Britain 20 years to reduce the share of coal in the energy mix from 90 percent to 30 percent,” Huang said, adding the change requires revolutions in fuel production, consumption and technology.

Analysts have called for better and more efficient use of coal to limit pollution.

Coal burning for residential heating, estimated at 700 million tonnes, is a major source of pollution, according to Zuo Qianming, an expert with China National Coal Association. Due to its low cost, inferior coal has been widely used in rural areas where regulations are lax.

An investigation team from the Ministry of Environmental Protection found that 22.2 percent of coal for household use in Beijing exceeded emissions standards. In Tangshan, Longfang, Baoding and Cangzhou cities in Hebei Province, the ratio reached as high as 37.5 percent.

 

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