HEALTH

Coal-related air pollution has killed hundreds of thousands in Chinese cities, Greenpeace asserts

When Shanghai's air pollution hit a record last Friday and more than a dozen other cities were shrouded in smog, it fueled sales of masks and air purifiers across the nation. Chinese citizens blamed emissions from coal-fired power plants for threatening their health.

A new health impacts assessment report, unveiled today by Greenpeace and delivered to selected media, estimated that China's operating coal-fired power plants released polluting emissions that killed 260,000 people in 2011 alone.

By contrast, air pollution from coal power plants in the United States caused 13,200 premature deaths in 2010, according to a study by the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based nonprofit group dedicated to reducing atmospheric pollution.

Greenpeace says its researchers collected emissions data from government institutes, published company statements and other sources. Then they fed the data into a pollution model developed by American experts and produced a detailed picture of deaths and diseases associated with China's power plant emissions.

According to Greenpeace's estimates, in 2011, China's coal-related air pollutants led to 340,000 hospital admissions and 2 million doctor visits and made hundreds of thousands of Chinese suffer from asthma -- among them, 320,000 children.

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The Greenpeace findings follow earlier reports, including a project conducted by the World Health Organization and others that found that outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010. Another study by Peking University in Beijing concluded that more than 8,000 people died prematurely in four Chinese cities because of fine particles, a cancer-causing air pollutant.

Greenpeace identified coal-fired power plants as the largest contributor to outdoor air pollution in northern China's Hebei province and Beijing and Tianjin cities. Statistics from the government show that thermal power plants accounted for more than one-third of the total sulfur dioxide China emitted in 2011. Sulfur dioxide is a cause of acid rain.

Increasing water impacts

China is highly dependent on coal. The nation consumed more than 3.43 billion tons of coal in 2011, according to official figures, and half of that was burned for power generation.

In addition to air pollution, the coal use has caused many other problems in the nation. About 85 percent of China's coal lies in the north, which has 23 percent of the country's water resources. As the majority of the Chinese coal industry is built where coal reserves are, and every part of the industry -- from coal mining to preparation to power generation -- requires intensive water usage, those already water-scarce regions are suffering from an increasing water shortage (ClimateWire, July 1).

The shortage is expected to soar as China's demand for coal continues to grow. China, already the biggest coal consumer in the world, aims to fuel its fast-expanding economy with more coal. The government here approved the buildup of 16 giant coal industrial hubs by 2015 with a combined capacity exceeding 600 gigawatts.

If that happens, researchers at Greenpeace and the Chinese Academy of Sciences warn, the 16 new coal industrial hubs will consume nearly 10 billion cubic meters of water annually, equivalent to more than one-quarter of the water the Yellow River supplies in a normal year.

Air pollution could get worse, too. The Greenpeace report notes that 570 new coal-fired power plants, with a total installed capacity of 650 gigawatts, have been proposed or commissioned or are under construction in China. If realized, that will increase the country's current thermal power capacity by 86 percent, at the same time taking the toll on the health and longevity of more Chinese.

According to Greenpeace's projection, the 570 new proposed coal power plants will cause 32,000 premature deaths, 42,000 hospital admissions and 250,000 doctor visits. Besides that, 39,000 children and 7,400 adults are expected to suffer from asthma.

"These numbers are very conservative, as full compliance with new air emissions standards was assumed for all new plants," the report said. It added that six coal-reliant regions -- Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Ningxia, Gansu, Anhui and Shanxi -- are projected to account for 62 percent of China's total premature deaths caused by new coal power plants.

China's rush for coal could also harm its switch to a lower-emission energy path. The Greenpeace report notes that the average operating hours of coal-fired power plants here have dropped in 2012 compared with one year earlier, due to lower energy demand growth and higher electricity outputs generated from hydropower, natural gas and renewable energy. So if thermal generation capacity keeps increasing, the report says, idle capacity might grow, too, leaving less space for the development of clean energy sources.

A turning point?

To lower cancer-causing fine particle emissions in three key economic regions around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, the State Council, China's Cabinet, recently banned the approval of new coal-fired power plants except for those with energy-efficient technologies. And other government authorities followed up with their own plans for combating air pollution. Shanghai, for one, announced that its coal consumption would peak by the end of 2017.

Growing concerns over China's water shortage in coal-rich areas have hampered investor interest in the coal sector. "Hypothetically, if coal mining in China were severely constrained from a lack of water from say 2030, it could reduce our valuation on China Shenhua by about 26 percent and our valuation on China Coal by about 45 percent," HSBC bank analysts said in a report published earlier this year.

China Shenhua and China Coal are among the top coal producers in the world.

Other market factors, including weak market outlook and plummeting prices of coal both in China and globally, will weaken the coal expansion here. In a recent note to its clients, the investment bank Goldman Sachs said "the window for thermal coal investment is closing." That, in turn, could help protect more Chinese citizens from coal power plants' air pollution.

Still, more efforts are needed from the government side. "Although the Chinese government has clear and concrete air pollution reduction targets to ban new coal power plants, cut excess capacity from steel, iron and cement sectors, the current plan only focus on cutting excess industrial capacity, not really touching on adjusting energy mix," Greenpeace researchers said in their report.

The researchers warn that if Chinese policymakers fail to revise their approved coal development plan, the ongoing and proposed projects will offset current air pollution control effects, causing huge health problems across the nation in the next 30 to 40 years.

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