China has huge pollution problems, but before we blame it all on them, let's remember that a lot of it comes from making stuff for the rest of the world, and that most Chinese citizens don't really have a say in this and are the primary victims of this pollution. In any case, it looks like there's some progress in Beijing, a city where air pollution has been particularly bad; so bad that an artist sold a jar of clean mountain air from France for $845 in the smog-choked city. At least now authorities aren't just dealing with air pollution by censoring documentaries about it, but also by going to the root causes, including the hyper-dirty coal plants that still power a good part of the country. They might not have much choice, as pollution is now the #1 cause of social unrest in the country.
Bloomberg reports: "The capital city will shutter China Huaneng Group Corp.’s 845-megawatt power plant in 2016, after last week closing plants owned by Guohua Electric Power Corp. and Beijing Energy Investment Holding Co., according to a statement Monday on the website of the city’s economic planning agency. A fourth major power plant, owned by China Datang Corp., was shut last year."
Further highlighting the urgency of the issue in China, new research from Tsinghua University found that an estimated 670,000 premature deaths from four diseases - strokes, lung cancer, coronary heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - were linked to air pollution, especially particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less (a.k.a. PM 2.5). This is the class of particulate that was officially recognized as a human carcinogen last year by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, especially its link to lung cancer and a heightened risk of bladder cancer.
The Chinese study found that in 2012, more than 70 per cent of the population was exposed to annual PM 2.5 pollution levels higher than 35 micrograms per cubic metre, the country's benchmark for healthy air quality. But even that standard is pretty high compared to international limits; The World Health Organisation (WHO) sets its PM 2.5 safety limit at an annual concentration of 10mcg/cubic metre.
While it's good that the coal plants are shutting down, we're not quite out of the woods yet, as they will be replaced by natural gas power plants (which, on top of being cleaner, will be able to produce 2.6x more power than the coal plants they replace -- but they'll still pollute and generate CO2). Still, the CO2 intensity will be much lower than it was with coal, and China's emissions of CO2 fell 2% last year compared to 2013, the first decline since 2001, so that's something.