Chinese Characters Get Hazy :Coal or Renewables

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Air Pollution in Chinese cities risks China’s clarity on renewables. China could decouple its economic growth from its carbon footprint and air pollution. 

China could decouple its economic growth from its carbon footprint by putting greater emphasis on transition to renewable energies and the improvement of energy efficiency, said the head of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Air quality is a challenge shared by many major cities in the world and a lesson that Beijing and other cities has learned is putting a systematic approach in place, Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, said in an interview with China Daily on Monday.

China has begun a long journey that could meet the international standards for air quality in the future and it can move faster by increasing emission standards and optimizing its energy mix from coal toward other sources of energy.

The country has taken a global lead in the installation of renewable energies, yet coal still accounted for 66 percent of China’s energy consumption in 2014.

Renewable energy technologies have become more cost competitive and should not only be seen as a niche market.

If looking at production costs alone, coal seems cheaper, but the macroeconomic calculation shifts if the costs of cleaning the air and dealing with health problems are also taken into account, said Steiner.

“I would encourage China to put greater emphasis on investing in the transition of renewable energy and also energy efficiency. Sometimes the best return on investment is to increase energy efficiency, you need less power to achieve the same amount of GDP,” he said.

Ecological civilization and green growth have been highlighted in the proposals for the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20).

Steiner said it’s a “fascinating moment in history” that China has incorporated eco-civilization into its future development path. Also, it will create new opportunities in the ecological restoration and renewable energy technology sector.

Also, a very encouraging sign in Beijing and other cities in China is the high public awareness. Real time information or data is being released by monitoring stations on smartphone applications of and on the Internet.

“Everybody in the cities has become part of the effort to change the carbon footprint,” he said.

Meanwhile, China revised its output of coal from 3.68 billion tons to 3.97 billion tons in February, which has led to claims that the nation released more carbon dioxide than previously thought.

“China could have chosen not to correct the latest estimation, so I welcome the fact that China is reporting as accurate as it can,” said Steiner.

“From a global perspective, this correction does not change the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere because we already have global ways of measuring that, but for China, it’s a change in footprint that it carries within the global number,” he said.

Scientists observe and calculate the global carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere by direct monitoring, reporting and verification, rather than consolidated from countries’ reporting of their emissions based on their own methodologies, Greenovation Hub, a Chinese non profit organization, said in a report.

“This shows China is serious about its climate pledges to the international world, as it hasn’t changed its energy use cap and control or non-fossil fuel targets since the revision,” said the report.

UN report Greater effort needed to meet pollution standards

Additional work is needed for Beijing to meet the standards set by the World Health Organization for PM10 and PM2.5, according to a United Nations report released on Monday.

Air pollution control measures taken by Beijing since 1998 have resulted in positive trends toward improved air quality, said the review jointly conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme and Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau.

For instance, annual concentrations of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide are now lower than limits set by the Chinese authorities.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said the biggest and most complex challenge to the city’s air quality remains PM2.5-the fine particles that pose health hazards-and this should continue to be the greatest priority in the years to come.

The safety guideline for PM 2.5 set by the WHO is 25 micrograms per cubic meter, whereas the Chinese government sets a limit of 75 micrograms per cubic meter.

The number of vehicles in Beijing increased by 303 percent between 1998 and 2013, and this has become the primary source of PM2.5 pollution in Beijing, according to the review.

Motor vehicles accounted for 31.1 percent of China’s PM2.5 pollution in 2014, followed by coal consumption, industrial production and construction dust.

A series of vehicle emission control measures including promoting rail-based public transport and the phasing out of older vehicles have significantly reduced total vehicle emissions.

In addition, the shift from coal to natural gas has greatly reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants during the period. Coal consumption contributed to 22.4 percent of the city’s PM2.5 pollution in 2014.

Annual coal consumption by the power industry in the city fell by 2.56 million tons between 1998 and 2013, while natural gas consumption rose from zero to 1.85 billion cubic meters during the same period, according to the report.

He Kebin, a professor of environmental science at Tsinghua University, said Beijing used to be the only city in the world that consumed such a large amount of coal.

“What has been achieved in Beijing also has value for other cities in China which have a similar energy mix,” said He.

Coal-reliant manufacturing industries weigh heavily on the economy of cities in northeastern China, so it is of critical importance for the region to further optimize its energy structure, said experts.

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