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Clean Coal: China’s Path Towards Blue Skies?

Solar panels over a Chinese city. Renewable energy has proven that it cannot support torrid Chinese growth.

Global environmental policy is rife with unfulfilled promises, as evidenced by the notorious Kyoto Protocols. China, to much surprise, has nevertheless talked the talk and walked the walk, displaying its commitment to developing renewable energy technology and implementing a sustainable energy policy over the past decades. Despite its efforts, the nation has been forced to acknowledge the inadequacy of renewable energy in maintaining growth and development.

In 1998, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reorganized central government agencies dealing with environmental policy to increase their influence, beginning “the greatest push for renewable energy the world has ever seen.”  Government bodies tasked with environmental management and legislation, such as the National Environmental Protection Bureau, were elevated to ministerial status, giving them more power to implement and enforce their policies. In addition to institutional strengthening, these ministries were flooded with funding. The central government spent $65.3 billion on renewable energy power plants and accounted for one third of global smart-grid spending in 2012 alone. Clean energy investments of this magnitude are sure to continue; China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development, enacted for the period between 2011 and 2015, pledged to spend $473.1 billion on clean energy investments by 2015. In an era of budget cuts that have handicapped government environmental agencies in the United States and other Western nations, China has succeeded in becoming the world leader in renewable energy development.

In terms of capacity, China produces more energy from solar and wind technologies than any other nation. This energy production is fueled by domestically designed and manufactured technology, a market unrivaled in terms of quantity of production and quality of product: “The 2013 figures show the astonishing scale of the Chinese market, now the sleeping dragon has awoken”, noted Jenny Chase of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Until recently, China seemed to be well on its way to reshaping its image into a “low-carbon dragon,” a product of their pivot to renewable energy sources. The grim realities behind this policy, though, have forced China to reconsider its idealistic wind and solar investments.

Despite their wide appeal and ubiquity, renewable energy resources cannot plausibly fuel the world’s most populous country. “China can’t depend on alternative sources of fuel. They are not very stable,” agreed energy economist Zheng Xinye of Renmin University. Policymakers within the CCP have come to this same realization. The tremendous effort to develop an extensive renewable energy generating system has succeeded in bringing it to fruition — so why, then, is China recommitting itself to fossil fuels, particularly coal? First, renewable resources are concentrated in the Chinese west, while the majority of the industry and population is along the eastern coastal regions. Grid technology as it is today fails to transfer a large portion of this created energy to the areas where it is in demand. Additionally, energy production from renewable resources such as wind and solar is wildly inconsistent. The varying output either produces too little energy to meet demand or more than enough, which cannot be stored for later use. Finally, the energy density of renewables is far less than that of any other source. For instance, Cambridge University physicist David MacKay calculated that, “if the windiest 10 percent of the entire British landmass were completely covered with wind turbines, they would produce power roughly equivalent to half of what Britons expend merely by driving each day.” As a result, China has decided to embrace coal, tried and true in fueling a developing nation.

Although coal is a relatively cheap and reliable energy source, as well as the energy source of choice in China, the large amount of pollution it emits has wreaked havoc on the nation’s environment. Beijing and other major Chinese cities are notorious for their dense smog, prompting some citizens to wear masks when outdoors to protect themselves from PM 2.5, fine particulates most hazardous to human health. PM 2.5 measurements in Beijing in 2014 have hovered around the high 300s, compared to 50-60 in New York City. Regardless, the need for bountiful and inexpensive energy has pushed the Chinese to pursue a new goal: clean coal.

Environmentalists contest the legitimacy of clean coal technologies, but in fact existing methods have proven to be effective in curbing pollution from coal combustion. Coal after-treatments are the main area of focus for government investment at present. The government has begun installing technologies such as electrostatic precipitators and baghouses to remove particulates and flue-gas desulfurization (scrubbers) to carry out sulfur dioxide capture. Environmental officials hope, for example, to cut sulfur dioxide emissions by 8% by 2015. Such measures are likely to characterize China’s long-term energy policy, replacing early enthusiasm for renewable sources. The government has realized that, rather than committing significant effort and resources to expanding renewables, which make up such a small portion of total power generation, developing more effective clean coal technologies would more quickly make a substantial impact on reducing pollution from energy production.

In China, where the political structure is especially sensitive to economic issues, steady growth is vital for maintaining unequivocal party control.  Leaders of the late 1990s noted the grave threat of environmental degradation to economic growth, prompting them to initiate the present era of enormous investment in clean energy. The recent decision to remain committed to coal as the primary energy source comes amid the realization that access to reliable energy is essential and renewables are an unstable foundation for development. Coal, being cheap, reliable and plentiful, is perfect for fueling economic growth. Economic progress is no longer enough for Chinese citizens, though. Environmental degradation was palatable during the process of modernization that lifted millions out of poverty, but the standard of living has risen to a point where environmental consciousness has become a marked priority for reformers and activists. The Chinese government is in a precarious position, juggling environmental health and economic progress. If the pivot to clean coal investments fails to adequately remedy the environmental issues associated with coal, the result could eventually challenge the leadership of the single-power state.

About the Author

James Konsky is a staff writer for the Brown Political Review studying International Relations with a focus on East Asia. Having grown up in the Midwest, James is a passionate St. Louis sports fan and lover of all things moderately conservative. He is greatly influenced by the life of Abe Lincoln and the suave style of JFK.