Beijing Plans To Kick Its Coal Addiction
Coal, still hydrocarbon king in China, to the displeasure of much of its citizens, the ire of its Asian neighbors and the wrath of international environmental groups, seems destined to be dethroned – at least starting in Beijing. To feed its insatiable energy appetite and to fuel its three decade-long economic miracle, China has mostly used coal and still does. However before coal is toppled from its lofty position in Beijing or any other Chinese city, numerous scenarios must play out first.
Make no mistake. China has a coal addiction that has worsened over time. In 2009 coal represented 70 percent of China’s total energy consumption. Oil was at 19%. Following up the lead were hydroelectric power at 6%, and natural gas at just 4%. Nuclear power stood at 1% and other renewables at 0.3%, according to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA).
China is the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. In 2011, China consumed an estimated four billion short tons of coal, representing about half of the world total. Coal consumption is about three times higher than it was in 2000. China, typically a net coal exporter, became a net coal importer in 2009 for the first time in over two decades. Total imports, rose to 240 million short tons in 2011, about 18 percent higher than 2010 levels, according to FACTS Global Energy.
According to the World Energy Council, China held an estimated 128 billion short tons of recoverable coal reserves in 2011, the third-largest in the world behind the US and Russia, and equivalent to about 13% of the world”s total coal reserves. Coal production rose 9% from 3.5 billion short tons in 2010 to over 3.8 billion short tons in 2011. There are 27 provinces in China that produce coal, while northern China, especially the provinces of Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, contain most of China”s easily accessible coal and virtually all of the large state-owned mines.
However, China’s coal consumption creates a myriad of problems, environmentally, politically and even geologically.
For starters, coal pollutes. There is no way around that fact. Of all the hydrocarbons, it’s the least environmentally friendly. Burning coal is a leading cause of smog and air toxics. Even without the controversial global warming theory, coal is problematic. Even the World Coal Association admits that coal mining raises a number of environmental challenges, including soil erosion, dust, noise and water pollution, and impacts on local biodiversity. To battle these problems and under political pressure, China began to use cleaner coal and to introduce more efficient equipment, reducing the emissions and correspondingly the sulfur dioxide concentrations even though the total use of fossil fuels was increasing.
However coal still contributes to a large extent the high carbon dioxide emissions in China.
China’s civil unrest and international protest
The problem of coal pollution in China has been so bad at times that it has provoked civil unrest and even rioting – often loud and sometimes deadly.
Rioting over coal mining activities in China’s Inner Mongolia got out of hand in May 2011. The drama played out over a week and resulted in the death of an ethnic Mongol protestor who tried to block a coal truck. The protestor was run over then dragged nearly 500 feet to his death. Five days later, a forklift driver was killed at an area coalmine after he and other locals fought with company employees in a protest over pollution from the mine. The next month Chinese authorities passed the death sentence against the coalmine worker for killing the Mongolian protester, according to SourceWatch, an international watchdog group. The protestor’s death sparked protests across northern China.
Protests also broke out in Southern China on December 20, 2011. Tens of thousands of residents in China’s southern Guangdong Province gathered in the streets and occupied a highway to demonstrate against an existing coal plant and the development of a new coal plant near Shantou city. Protests in China over coal and other industrial pollutants are occuring up to the present.
However the Chinese aren’t the only ones suffering from the effects of China’s coal pollution. Both Japan and South Korea claim that pollution from coal burning plants in northern China are causing serious air pollution problems for them as well. They complain that winds, carrying sulfur and nitrogen oxides, also pick up heavy metals and carcinogens and dump them in their respective countries, with corresponding health problems.
Scientists in the US claim that pollution and dust from China travels over the Pacific Ocean to the western United States. Some estimates claim that 25% of the air pollution in Los Angeles comes from China.
Beijing’s natural gas plans
It’s hard to forget the images and news reports coming out of Beijing before the 2008 Olympic Games. Government planners made it a priority to present to the world a cleaner and healthier Beijing (less smog and air pollution), but few of us were fooled. Images of brownish-yellow haze, masked motorcycle riders trying to keep from suffocating due to it all, and insane traffic congestion cutting through layers of gray smog are hard to get out of one’s mind – but the city tried to clean things up and it appears they are still trying.
In February state-media reported that Beijing planned to reduce air pollution levels by 15% by 2015, the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan period, and 30% by 2020 through phasing out old cars, relocating factories and planting new forests.
And, in March news broke that Beijing authorities will replace all coal-fired equipment with cleaner burning natural gas in its core areas by 2015.
According to Xinhua, Beijing aims to set a cap on the amount of coal it uses to 15 million tons compared to 20 million tons that had been earmarked earlier for the same time period. Beijing also wants areas inside its 5th Ring Road to be coal-free by 2015, said Gao Xinyu, head of the commission”s energy division.
However this is a lofty ambition since coal is the city’s dominant energy source. In 2010 Beijing consumed 26.35 million tons of coal. Zhao Lei, deputy director of Beijing’s development and reform commission, said to achieve this ambitious target the city will replace four major coal-burning power plants with natural gas power plants, ban coal-fired winter heating and use more clean energy. If attainted, the benefits will be immense. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal-fired generation and less than a third as much nitrogen oxides and creates none of the ash and slag.
Local Chinese media has already reported that the city”s air quality has improved over the past few years since it shut down 180 polluting and energy-consuming companies and over 200 coalmines.
The plan however has its critics.
“It will be no easy task for the city to reach its 2015 goal, let alone become coal-free, as it is extremely hard to banish the 2.15 million small coal furnaces in the city,” an environmental protection expert who refused to be named told Xinhua.
Critics also claim that furnaces, which are widely used in downtown Beijing, the city”s outlying areas and the countryside burn inferior coal, which produces nearly one hundred times more emissions than large coal-burning facilities.
Dr. Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University”s China Center for Energy Economics Research was more optimistic that Beijing’s plans can be implemented.
“With more gas supply coming into China, and with people”s affordability and willingness to pay for air quality increases, the plan will be implemented,” he told Energy Tribune. Lin added that the main challenges will be some social problems related to closing down the coal-fired plants, including reemployment and others.
Dr. Lin also stated that all other major cities in China will implement similar plans in time. If so, not only will it help break China’s coal addiction but also have the added bonus of reducing the smog and pollution that has a crippling affect on the Asian giant. An added bonus will come once China’s fledgling shale gas industry is developed, thus also adding an incentive to reduce and eliminate the use of coal and replace it with cleaner burning natural gas.
In March, the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources announced that China has 25.08 trillion cubic meters (Tcm) or 886 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of exploitable onshore shale-gas reserves. The resources are part of an estimated 134.42 Tcm of total reserves of the gas in the country. Shale gas has been discovered in 880,000 square kilometers (340,000 square miles) of exploration blocks that contain 15.95 Tcm of the fuel that can be extracted.
Another factor that is contributing to the decline of coal in China is economic. China’s economy has cooled lately, therefore requiring less energy, less coal and prompting change. Radio Free Asia reported on August 20 that China”s slowing economy and growing backlogs of coal are prompting calls for permanent reforms in mining. Mounting stockpiles at ports and power plants for the past several months have forced cutbacks in the country that consumed 3.7 billion metric tons of coal last year.
Coal prices have dropped by over 20% since May, while storage hit historic highs at China”s major ports, Xinhua reported.
With environmentalists in China calling for cleaner energy sources, the populace denouncing the use of coal, China’s new shale gas discoveries and a slower economy in the mix, coal in China is set for a fall though it will be a long fall from grace – how long all of this will take however is anybody’s guess.