Particles, Pollution, and Policy in The People’s Republic

Throughout the past decade China’s economy has experienced significant growth, averaging 10% annually, but it has not come without a cost. The level of pollution in China has grown dramatically, becoming so bad that it is said to be responsible for thousands of premature deaths. In January of 2013, the pollution in Beijing reached a record 993 micrograms per cubic meter. Compare this to the World Health Organization’s limit of 25 micrograms for a healthy environment. [1]

The pollution in China is largely the result of the country’s dependence on coal.  At present, coal accounts for roughly 70% of China’s energy, and it is expected to triple by 2030. [2] In 2011, China’s coal consumption grew 9%, reaching 3.8 billion tons. China consumes almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. The graph below from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows how China’s coal consumption has grown over the past decade: [3]

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Coal is a relatively cheap and abundant natural resource in China so the country has little incentive to stop using it and switch to another energy source. However, as China’s demand for the resource continues to grow, it will have to increase its imports from other countries.  The graph below shows the expected increase in coal imports by region, with Asia Pacific importing significantly more than other regions.

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Last year coal production grew faster than any other energy source worldwide, excluding renewables. Worldwide coal production was up 6% in 2010, which represents twice the growth of gas and more than four times the growth of oil. [4] An increase in coal production and consumption also means an increase in carbon dioxide emissions.  Coal is a dirty energy source, emitting roughly 30% more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil and 70% more than natural gas.  Altogether, coal is responsible for about 40% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The US used to be the biggest offender of carbon dioxide emissions until 2010 when China surpassed the US, emitting more than 8 billion metric tons a year. [5] All of this coal has left China with hazy, polluted skies, and a potential national health catastrophe. Many people in China are becoming fed up with the pollution and toxic air quality and are starting to protest in masses.

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The question is whether China can continue to grow its economy at its desired rate while reducing its dependence on fossil fuels such as coal that make the pollution in its cities so hazardous. Until recently, the government has taken relatively small steps in an attempt to reduce the pollution. For example, it has made the price of owning a car in China’s cities extremely expensive. It has also invested heavily in renewable energy projects, including solar and wind. However, these actions have not been dramatic enough as the air quality in China has only gotten worse over the last few years.

A New Direction

In March of this year,  the Chinese government announced that it is taking a harder stance on pollution. In its annual meeting the National Legislature said it will reduce the nation’s carbon emissions and energy use per unit of gross domestic product by at least 3.7% this year. Moreover, it said it will begin experimenting with carbon-trading trials. The government said it will spend 2.37 trillion yuan ($380 billion) on energy conservation and emissions reduction throughout the next few years. After 2015, the country’s goal is to reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16% and carbon intensity by 17%. [6] The trick will be for China to continue to grow its economy and middle class, lifting more and more people out of poverty, while also reducing pollution to improve its air quality for its 1.3 billion citizens.











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One response to “Particles, Pollution, and Policy in The People’s Republic

  1. jeanneeckhart

    China is looking at a carbon tax to help implement reductions in pollution, but they have postponed the opening of this pilot carbon tax program until after this year because the government officials do not want economic growth to suffer [1]. In my opinion, the Chinese pollution is severely bad. China’s economy is going to already suffer because of this situation as people have more severe health problems. When visiting China, you can immediately tell the difference in the air quality and the major issues that China faces.

    The carbon tax that Chinese officials want to introduce would but a tax ranging from 5 yuan to 10 yuan, or about 80 cents to about a $1.60, per a ton of carbon. The Chinese officials plan on implementing a pilot carbon tax program in seven regions, which will make the program the largest cap and trade scheme after the one within Europe [1]. This year the Chinese government plans on reducing emissions and energy use per a gross unit of GDP by about 3.7% [1]. According to a paper released by researchers at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning and the Energy Research Institute of the NRDC in 2009, the carbon tax would need to be at least 20 yuan to help reduce emissions in China [1]. To give more clarification of how the U.S. prices carbon taxes, two senators recently released a bill proposing a carbon-tax scheme that would set the beginning carbon fee at $20.00, significantly more than the 10 yuan that China will try to implement in it’s pilot in the coming year. In fact, China originally had stated that it would introduce a cap and trade scheme with carbon taxes in 2011, yet in 2013 it will not be implemented [1].

    It seems to me that China cannot delay any longer, they must act, and act fast! They will have a many people with extensive health problems, creating unforeseen economic consequences. China is delaying and they will continue to delay until their people push for reform. They are so concerned about economic impacts, that they do not realize the environmental and health damages they will suffer in the near future. They will need to begin considering environmental and health impacts more than ever before, even it does mean negatively affecting the economy slightly, in my opinion.


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