The Duck of Minerva

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China Tries to Come to Grips with Pollution

November 5, 2014

In the lead up to the APEC summit about to start this week in Beijing, China’s leadership undertook a series of emergency measures to avoid the continued embarrassment of a string of poor air quality days that had bedeviled the country over the previous year. The government reinstated the familiar practice of restricting car travel to certain days of the week based on license plate numbers. Government workers and schools were closed for an “APEC holiday” to reduce traffic. Factories have been ordered to shut down during the summit. Interestingly, those plans seemingly backfired as companies anticipated the later forced work stoppages by working overtime in advance of the later down hours they would be offline during the summit.

Thus, in October when Beijing often enjoys clear skies and cool weather, the city was cloaked in a devastating haze. Some of the world’s best soccer players from Argentina and Brazil were in town for a friendly, only to be confined to their hotel rooms for most of their visit, save for training sessions that left them gasping for breath. Later in the month, photos (see above) captured the spectacle of the Beijing Marathon being run amidst this foul air, with many participants clad in elaborate gas masks as they ran the course. Of course, while foreign visitors are exposed to this pollution during short stays, this is the air quality the people of China experience all the time. A recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) concluded that seventy percent of the country’s population live in areas that exceed air pollution levels recommended by the World Health Organization. That pollution was estimated to be responsible for 670,000 premature deaths in 2012 from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and pulmonary disease.

At this point, China’s bad air isn’t news (see my earlier posts here and here). However, China’s unfolding “war on pollution” is news and may ultimately improve both air quality and address climate change. 

The War on Pollution

As NRDC’s Jake Schmidt noted, because of the horrible air quality China has experienced over the past year plus, “there is a growing recognition that a national coal consumption peak is both achievable and desirable.” What this means, according to Schmid, is a possible cap on coal consumption:

In fact, the China’s National Energy Agency is currently considering the energy targets for the 13th Five-Year Plan, and news reports have reported that it is considering a cap on coal consumption in the next Five Year Plan and a target to reduce coal’s share of primary energy to 60% by 2020.

There is some good news on the coal use front already. According to Greenpeace, for the first time this century, China’s coal consumption fell by 1-2% in the first three quarters of this year compared to the same period last year. However, with nearly 70% of China’s energy coming from coal and China consuming half of the world’s total consumption of coal, these trends have to accelerate, for China’s sake and the world’s.

China’s is giving its environment ministry more tools to address pollution. In September, China released draft revisions to the national Air Pollution Prevention and Control Law for public comment. As NRDC’s Barbara Finamore noted, these are a long time coming:

Amendments to the Air Pollution Law have been a long time in the making. China’s original 1987 Air Pollution Law was first revised in 1995 and further strengthened in 2000. But these earlier versions lacked specific details and mechanisms for enforcement.

The revised law will give the Ministry of Environmental Protection to set pollution standards, establish daily fines for pollution, provide citizens’ groups with the right to sue, and improve data monitoring. These revisions to the air pollution law come on top of earlier revisions to the Environmental Protection Law that were concluded in April and go in to force in January 2015. That law will make local governments and officials more accountable for environmental performance, increase the scope of emissions caps, improve the emissions permitting process, among other measures.

The Implications for Climate

Some of China’s efforts to address air pollution may produce co-benefits for climate change, while others will make it worse. China is investing in coal to gas plants, which would improve air quality but would require energy (and hence more coal) to convert the coal to synthetic fuel and thus could double carbon footprint of conventional coal and oil in cites. Installation of flue gas desulfurization on coal-burning power plants would produce more greenhouse gas emissions since these systems require energy to run. China’s relocation of coal-burning power plants away from Beijing and other eastern cities towards the interior will provide air quality benefits to urban areas but will only relocate the source of greenhouse gas emissions not reduce them, barring a transition away from coal.


That said, China appears to be contemplating not only peak coal use but also may be committing to peak CO2 emissions. As Jake Schmidt noted:

China has confirmed that it will present its proposed next round of national climate targets by early next year as a key input into the Paris agreement. So the next couple of months are critical. At the September Climate Summit, China provided the first official hints of what we might expect when they stated: “We will announce post-2020 actions on climate change…which will bring about marked progress in reducing carbon-intensity, increasing the share of non-fossil fuels and raising forest stock, as well as the peaking of CO2 emissions as early as possible.” China’s carbon emissions peak has moved from theory to practice.

At the September summit, Vice Premier Zhang committed that China will try to peak emissions “as early as possible,” which suggests an announcement and timetable may be revealed early next year. The practical implications of such a commitment would have to involve commitments to energy efficiency, a faster scale-up of renewables and nuclear energy, fuel switching to natural gas, and movement to industrial-scale carbon capture. All of these steps and more would be required to wean China from coal consumption which is on track to use up all of the remaining carbon budget the world has to avoid more than a 2 degree increase in global temperatures (a goal we’re unlikely to meet in any case as I suggested last week).

With Secretary Kerry headed to Beijing this week, there are high expectations that progress will be made on setting the stage for those commitments next year. It’s unclear if more small-scale technical cooperation will be on offer as we have seen in the past like the Clean Energy Research Centers (CERCs). Whatever the outcome, the release of the IPCC Fifth Assessment report this week underscored the importance of commitments by the US and China–responsible for 45% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.


In other news, China’s presidential entourage was implicated in illegal ivory purchases during a trip to Tanzania in 2013. I hope that comes up during APEC as well.

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.