China has burned coal since before the 20th century, but the trend of investing in clean coal is a phenomenon that has only taken place in recent decades. To its credit, the country has led the world in construction of high-efficiency coal power plants in recent years, yet there may be ulterior motives at play. Pew Charitable Trusts named China as the country with the highest investment in clean energy last year, but that fact is overshadowed when one sees that China generated over 83 percent of its electricity from coal last year (Bradsher, 2011). Alternative energies – such as wind turbines and hydroelectric dams – only run when enough wind or water is available, while coal-burning facilities operate uninterrupted day and night. As a result, China has invested billions of dollars in support of clean coal, despite how significant a misnomer that may be. Alternative energy strategies have received far less capital than those involving coal, and a worrisome amount of reform efforts have focused on merely finding ways to extend the shelf-life of China’s existing coal reserves. The question is: why is China investing in cleaner coal technology?
China’s stake in clean coal seems questionable when one considers that over 80 percent of its coal reserves do not meet the country’s standards for industrial use according to the government-run China Coal Research Institute. This is especially confounding given that China’s environmental regulators intend to further reduce allowable levels of sulfur. Adding to the headache, the country sits on the world’s third-largest coal reserves after Russia and the United States. From 2000 to 2010, China’s coal consumption rose over a staggering 180 percent (Bradsher, 2011). These facts depreciate the country’s commitment to clean coal initiatives because such policies may only result in further propping up crutches to support fossil fuels, as opposed to eliminating them.
Since 1949, China has suffered mostly from a shortage of coking coal, which is required for the steel industry. This shortage has limited the growth of the steel industry in China in addition to increasing the need for imports. Another problem is the unusual location of coal resources: approximately 80 percent of China’s coal is located in mountainous regions (Littlefield, 1996). Consequently, companies have started to employ the practice of blending different grades of coal to reduce the output of greenhouses gases. Such practices breed a host of their own problems, however. The aim is to reduce the pollutants that are generated by using mixtures of coal that burn more efficiently. The reality is that China must import record amounts of coal from other countries to find the balance it needs for the ideal coal cocktail necessitated by this new, costly infrastructure.
If a balanced perspective is to be achieved, China cannot be held solely accountable for its current situation. Coal mixing is done in Europe and the United States, and there has been substantial and influential investment from foreign entities in Chinese production in recent decades. Chinese manufacturers that dump waste into rivers or pump the sky full of smoke are providing stores in the United States and Europe with cheap products that outsell domestic competition. Often these manufacturers subcontract for foreign companies or are owned by them, and that investment must be weighed into China’s investments in coal.
Another interesting piece to this puzzle is the fact that coal prices have surged in recent years. China now finds itself with a looming energy crisis and the only solution it has appears to suggest burning the problem away. The Yangtze River, the site of the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, received 40 percent less water at its upper reaches this month compared with levels in the past three years (Kwiatkowski, 2011). Additionally, China has only one-fifth the water per capita as the United States; the southern region is relatively wet but the northern region is immensely parched and possibly succumbing to desertification. This pressure adds ammunition to the argument that China is investing in clean coal not primarily in the interest of reform, but in the interest of economy and immediacy. After all, China’s expansive coal industry is the foundation for its enormous growth over recent decades, despite equally enormous growth in its emissions.
Evidence abounds for such consequences of Chinese coal production and consumption: the amount of acid rain, smog, and soot levels have all increased measurably in recent years and cities, even as places like Beijing insist that they will accept no mandatory limit on carbon dioxide emissions. The authority that is exercised in prefects leads many to criticize the federal government for not cracking down on officials ignoring mandates, but regulations continue to be relegated. China’s problem has become the world’s problem. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides produced from coal plants fall as acid rain in Seoul and Tokyo. According to research, much of the particulate pollution over Los Angeles originates in China (Kahn & Yardley, 2007). Accordingly, many environmental activists and neighboring countries insist that China cannot follow the same path that so many others already have.
Only one percent of the country’s 560 million city-dwellers breathe air considered safe by the European Union. Even worse, the emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal and fuel oil, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease as well as acid drain, are increasing even faster than China’s economic growth. As far back as 1988, it was estimated that a full quarter of annual deaths in China were a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease linked to exposure to fine particulates, sulfur dioxide, and cigarette smoke among other factors (Littlefield, 1996). A report in 2005 prepared by Chinese environmental experts estimated that annual premature deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution were likely to reach 380,000 in 2010 and 550,000 in 2020 (Kahn & Yardley, 2007). The unspoken truth is that these environmental issues get harder and more expensive to address the longer they remain unresolved; moreso as China continues to create greater dependence on imported oil and coal.
China’s coal industry is alarming and wholly rooted in convenience versus responsibility. The current blending technologies being invested in represent decades’ worth of investment and will pave the way for further dependency on coal with minimal improvements in pollution. Market conditions ensure that China will justify its expenditures: the cost of coal with high heat content doubled to $130 ton over the past 5 years (Bradsher, 2011). Reports with hard numbers for estimates of deaths resulting from air pollution are recommended to remain unpublished by state agencies for damage control.
The problem with China is that it has no model to follow: modern developed nations polluted their way to riches before they dealt with their environmental footprints. The casualties as a result of the coal industry in China speak to the true pace of China’s attention on health regulations and pollution concerns. Furthermore, its investments in clean coal pose a stark threat to global considerations such as global warming, which have received renewed scientific scrutiny and support in recent years. The sheer amount of pollutants outweighs the marginal increase in efficiency they are gaining.
As China embraces the euphemism that is clean coal, it stands poised to proceed burning through its coal reserves until the very end, with only meager reductions in emissions. The situation has escalated and yet China remains an attractive location to offshore business, which drives production further. China is quick to point out modest gains in coal-processing efficiency, but it is equally eager to silence information that speaks to the devil in the details, when it should instead be focused on exploring ways to alleviate its dependence on coal.
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1Bradsher, K. (2011, June 14). A green solution, or the dark side to cleaner coal?. The New York Times, Retrieved from
3Kahn, J. & Yardley, J. (2007, August 26). As china roars, pollution reaches deadly extremes. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/26/world/asia/26china.html?pagewanted=all
4Kwiatkowski, A. (2011, May 08).China coal prices rise for sixth weeks; inventories rebound. Retrieved from
5Littlefield, A. (1996). China and coal. TED Case Studies, 5(1), Retrieved from http://www1.american.edu/ted/chincoal.htm