License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

China announces "war on pollution" and bigger cut in carbon intensity

Lauri Myllyvirta and Damian Kahya
License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Coal projects in western China have prompted water concerns.

The Chinese government has claimed it will fight a "war on air pollution" similar to previous efforts to eradicate poverty in the world's largest economy.

The claim at the governing communist party annual conference comes amidst a flurry of new initiatives to cut air pollution and coal use including cuts to China's emissions intensity, increases in clean energy investment and wider regional caps in coal use.

One official study claimed China's coal use would now peak by 2020. The recent announcements include:

  • Cutting energy intensity by 3.9% this year through more efficiency, smart grids, renewable energy, nuclear and natural gas.
  • China's coal demand to peak in 2020, according to the coal industry planning, design and research institute.
  • New provinces, including provinces in the fast developing west of the country announcing initial plans to cap coal use.

Coal caps

The latest coal cap claim comes from a a province where many new power plants are planned.

The move by the western Sha’anxi province to cut coal use by 2017 comes after concerns about air pollution in the regional capital of Xi’an where levels of fine particulates – linked to coal burning – average 10 times World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Up until now eight provinces in China’s wealthier east have committed to cut or cap coal use as part of the country’s national air pollution plan.

See also

But though those regions accounted for a third of national coal use it wasn’t known if provinces in the country’s north and west would make similar commitments. Many of the China’s future power plants are planned in these regions partially to compensate for coal caps in the East.

China's rising coal consumption was responsible for two thirds of the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 so a slowdown in China's coal use has the potential to significantly reduce current projections for greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale.

Under the newly announced plan Sha'anxi will commit to burning no more than 138 million tonnes of coal in 2017.

The cut would mean significant cutbacks in planned coal expansion in the region. 5GW of coal plants are currently under construction in Sha’anxi, with 40-60GW planned. If built these plants alone would use up most of the province's 2017 cap.

Coal to gas

However, unlike the national action plan covering the eastern provinces, promises by individual regions are not always enforced. China also has plans to build up to 15 coal-to-gas plants in its north and westerly provinces - partially to provide gas to the east of the country.

The China National Petroleum Corp's Economics and Technology Research Institute warned in January that output from those plants may fall short “due to the severe environmental protection problems and lack of pipeline networks".

A study by Greenpeace and the Chinese official Institute of Geographical Sciences and Natural  Resources suggested planned coal plants could cause severe water stress in China’s arid west.

Further reading
Platts: China's coal to gas projects
Report: China coal and water and in pictures (Guardian)

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In the first of our series of stories on the key issues facing the world's leaders at the climate summit in New York.


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