China Air Pollution: Airmageddon Will Force China to Curb Greenhouse Gases

Just how bad is the air getting in Beijing? Readings on the Air Quality Index scale peaked at over 700 one day last month; to put that in context, the version of the AQI scale used in the United States doesn't even go above 500. Sales of indoor air filter appliances in Beijing are skyrocketing as residents are beginning to see them as vital pieces of equipment for their homes, while residents have taken to calling the slate gray clouds that envelop the city "airmageddon" and the city as "Grayjing."

The people in China are starting to demand change, and are questioning one of the key pillars of Chinese domestic policy for the past three decades: steady and sizable economic growth at all costs. To keep up with growth, China has been adding electricity generating capacity as fast as they can, including firing up a new coal-fueled power plant at a rate of almost one per week. But some upwardly mobile Chinese are asking, what good is it to enter the middle class, if we can't breathe the air?

Last year, China surpassed the United States as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). But while U.S. emissions are on a steady decline, China's are continuing to climb.

Obviously, this situation is unsustainable for China. The solution is obvious: increased investment and construction of non-fossil fuel-based energy sources: nuclear, hydroelectric and, of course, “renewable” types like solar, wind and biomass, and a curtailment of the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal. China now consumes more coal than the rest of the nations of the world combined.

China is already an active player in the renewable energy market. It is a major supplier of both wind turbines and solar panels, in fact, the city of Dezhou specializes in the construction of solar power equipment. China has been actively integrating wind and solar into their electricity generating mix and leads the world in installed wind generation capacity with 77 gigawatts (GW). But within the Chinese market, renewables have not been seen as a replacement for fossil fuels, but rather as a complement, another way for China to throw every energy-generating source that it can into the mix to continue to fuel the country's rapid economic growth. In 2010 China surpassed the United States to become the world's largest energy consumer; 10 years earlier, China used about half as much energy as the U.S., energy demand in China has grown that quickly.

In the past, China has been hesitant to engage in formal agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While China did participate in the Copenhagen 2009 round of talks regarding the UN's Kyoto Protocols in combating greenhouse gas emissions; China opposed hard caps on GHG emissions per country and discussed only voluntary reduction goals that were viewed as not being stringent enough to really contribute to the reduction level set by the target year 2020. Domestic efforts to reduce pollution have been viewed as tepid by critics and many Chinese citizens.

But the ongoing situation in Beijing could be a game-changer for China: there clearly is a need for China to commit to drastically reduce their levels of air pollution, not to meet some esoteric goal set by the global environmentalist community, but simply so that their citizens can continue breathing. Public dissatisfaction over the terrible air quality in many of China's urban centers is growing to the point where the government will need to respond with effective measures.

One sign that the government is taking the issue seriously is the announcement earlier this week that China will begin to impose a carbon tax on coal. Details of the plan are still sketchy, but China's Finance Ministry discussed an idea for a carbon tax on coal that would phase in at $1.60 per ton and rise to $8/ton by 2020. With coal selling at around $86/ton in China, this is a modest amount to start with, and analysts suggest that the tax regime may be full of loopholes (though easier to enforce than “fees” which are often levied, and waived, against industries in China), but the fact that the Chinese government has committed to any kind of carbon reduction program on one of their primary fuel sources for industry and power generation is quite a step.

The Chinese government's changing attitude towards carbon emissions will likely have broader effects on the global community. At the Copenhagen climate talks, countries divided into two camps: many developed nations, led by those in Western Europe, argued in favor of strict caps on GHG emissions; developing nations, led in large part by China, argued that strict caps would hurt their economic development and that this was a hypocritical argument being pushed by the developed nations, since they had polluted the world, reaped the economic benefits and were merely using this argument as a ploy to stifle the rise of other nations; in short, developing nations needed to pollute if they were to advance. But if China changes tack when it comes to carbon, this argument goes out the window and it will put additional pressure on emerging nations to build sustainable growth and caps on emissions into their economic development plans.

Editor's note: for more on combating carbon emissions, read Jonathan Karp's piece on Tesla and electric cars in the U.S.

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