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. 
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.  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: 
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.
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.  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.  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.
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%.  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.