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August 02, 2013

Coal, Mortality, and Protests in China


Photo credit: David Barrie

Since 2001, when Beijing won the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games, China's air quality has been the subject of significant international attention. Images of China's thick, smog-filled skies were on every news station's feature and every newspaper's front page. Things looked especially bad in January 2013, when air pollution in Beijing exceeded the maximum level on the Air Quality Index's scale of 0 to 500 -- with a reading of 755. With more health reports emerging on the topic, the link between China's air pollution and negative health consequences is more substantiated now than ever before.

Earlier this month, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences connected higher levels of localized air pollution from coal in northern China to reduced life expectancy.

The study (Chen et al, 2013) used official Chinese data from 1981 to 2000 on air pollution and mortality in 90 cities to conclude that 500 million people living north of the Huai River have life expectancies that are 5.5 years lower than their counterparts south of the river. Several factors explain this phenomenon -- and most of these explanations relate to coal. First, the northern part of the country is colder than the south, and more coal is burned there to provide needed heating. The practice of burning coal was even intensified through the "Huai River policy," which was in effect from 1950 to 1980 and provided coal to those living north of the Huai River as a means of ensuring free winter heating. As a result of the coal-burning influenced by this policy, the researchers found that concentrations of total suspended particulates were 55 percent higher to the north of the Huai River than to the south.

China is facing huge pressure to address its air pollution, largely as a result of grassroots protests from its own people. Daniel Gardner, a scholar of East Asian studies, recently blogged about the rise of environmental protests in China against grievances including the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Global attention on China's air pollution -- headlines in international news outlets and comparisons to international air quality standards -- has also made China feel pressure to improve air quality.

Fortunately, China has indeed been taking steps to address air pollution. Last month, China's State Council adopted 10 measures addressing air quality. In addition to greater penalties for pollution violations and a call for better emergency preparedness, the measures require greater disclosure of environmental information from major polluters -- including coal-fired power plants.

Contrary to a popular narrative, China's demand for coal is peaking. This is a positive sign that China is taking concerns about the environment and air pollution seriously, and that we may expect improvements in air quality in the not-too-distant future. The Chinese government has indicated that it intends for coal to peak within the next five years, and investment in wind energy alone in China is already exceeding investment in new coal plants. These are indications that both grassroots and international pressure are leading to outcomes that are good for air quality.

Chen et al's study perhaps, then, simply provides more evidence to support why China should move away from coal.  Better late than never.

--Vrinda Manglik, Sierra Club International Campaign Intern



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