Can China Get a Handle on Pollution? What Does that Mean for Climate Change?

5 November 2013, 0104 EST

In the northern city of Harbin, China, air quality was so bad ten days ago that concentrations of particulate matter reportedly reached 1000 micrograms per cubic meter at their peak, exceeding the World Health Organization’s daily safe levels by a factor of 40 and shrouding the city in a fog so dense that commuters had trouble finding their way and a numbers of schools were forced to close. As China’s pollution has reached intolerable levels, the air quality problem may pose an opportunity for China to address not only its dirty air but also its greenhouse gas emissions, as actions to reduce air pollution may produce co-benefits for climate change.

China’s awful pollution situation and whether action to address climate change were the main subjects of discussion for a number of scholars and practitioners last Friday in a Webinar hosted by ChinaFAQs*. I was fortunate to be among the presenters, and though the event itself was subject to Chatham House rules, I’m making the first of my two contributions to the event available as a blog post (the second will follow shortly).

I’ve written on China, climate change, and energy in the past for CNAS and RFF. For me, this Webinar was timely, as I have just started a year long MA class on sectoral greenhouse gas emissions reductions strategies by the major economies. Our class has a group blog which we hope is a great resource for those interested in the domestic implementation challenges of climate change policies by the world’s major emitters. In the comments that follow, I take up the issue of whether China can get its act together on air pollution and what this might mean for climate change.

Will Efforts to Address Pollution Produce Benefits for Climate Change?

My general take is that China’s efforts to address pollution will produce co-benefits for climate in terms of slower growth in greenhouse gas emissions and possibly lower emissions of black carbon but not as much or as quickly as would be desirable. This I think leads to different observations in the U.S. policymaking community between foreign policy types and environmental types. Foreign policy types on the whole have been much less impressed with what China is doing regarding climate change and environmental protection than the environmental community, which has been more likely to highlight how much China is doing to try to take seriously climate concerns and pollution.

Part of the difference has to do with different optics. When one looks at how much China is doing to address climate change and rein in pollution, China’s efforts appear significant and serious. However, when one examines the enormity of the pollution and climate challenges, China has a long, long way to go. When I scanned two databases of greenhouse gas emissions this morning, CAIT and EDGAR, for greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2011 (the year for which the latest data was available), the year on year growth percentages don’t show consistent increases or decreases. What is clear is that emissions continue to rise dramatically, CAIT showed that greenhouse gas emissions increased by nearly 19.2% in China between 2008-2010. EDGAR showed a 24.5% increase in C02 emissions between 2008 and 2011.  With nearly 70% of China’s total energy use coming from coal and China responsible for between 40 and 50% of the world’s coal consumption, barring some major switch from coal to natural gas or renewables, China cannot turn the supertanker quickly.

So, I think the new spate of plans that the Chinese government recently announced to foreclose future coal projects in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou are important, but we should also recognize that those plans will only bring down coal as a share of energy production from 70 to 65% by 2017.  New coal plants continue to be planned elsewhere in the country, nearly 350 plants, if one excludes the fifteen plants affected by the ban announced earlier this year. New proposed standards on coal plants in fast growing areas may ultimately curb the attractiveness of building all those new plants, but that will still mean expanding coal use in total volume, even if the share goes down.

Beijing is shutting down three coal plants in favor of natural gas, which on its face sounds desirable, but these were 3 coal plants that were built with the latest control technologies in advance of the Olympics. From both an air quality and greenhouse gas emissions stand point, what happens in neighboring Hebei, a major steel producing province, may be more important.

I should note that one of the major scientific uncertainties is the size of the net climate benefits of addressing air pollution. Some pollutants make the climate problem worse (soot or black carbon, among other things, coats snow with black flecks, making it more absorbent of solar radiation) while others may dampen the warming effect (sulfur dioxides make clouds brighter, thus reflecting solar radiation back in to space). I think on balance the net effect of addressing air pollution is likely to be favorable for both human health and the climate problem, but the magnitude of the climate benefit may not be fully understood and may depend in part on what technologies are deployed to address air pollution, whether they are end up pipe type use of scrubbers (which might produce fewer climate benefits barring sequestration of carbon at the plant) or fuel switching to move to cleaner, low-carbon fuels (which will likely produce both health and climate benefits).

* ChinaFAQs in an initiative sponsored by the World Resources Institute to appraise U.S. policymakers on the latest developments in China related to climate change, energy, and the environment. This was my first interaction with ChinaFAQs, and these folks live and breathe China and the environment. They really know their stuff at a level of detail and familiarity with the latest on-the-ground developments that are truly impressive.