China Boosts Unsubsidized Renewables But Storms Ahead with Coal Production, Air Pollution
While China is surging ahead with more than 20 billion watts of unsubsidized renewable energy, the country is also seeing alarming increases in coal consumption, coal-driven air pollution, and emissions of an ozone-destroying chemical that was banned in 2012.
Last week, the country’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) announced approvals for 20.76 gigawatts of new projects, including 14.78 GW across 168 photovoltaic solar installations, 4.51 GW for 56 new wind farms, and 1.47 GW of distributed generation. The announcement covered “the first batch of such schemes planned for this year,” Renewables Now reports.
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China’s National Energy Administration expected the country to add 44.3 GW of wind and 20.59 GW of solar this year, bringing the country’s cumulative totals to 174.63 and 184.26 GW, respectively, by the end of the year.
But that mounting momentum hasn’t been enough to offset a 6.5% year-over-year increase in air pollution in Beijing, Tianjin, and 26 surrounding cities over the months of October to March, when China’s winter air pollution action plan is in effect, according to analysis by the Greenpeace Air Pollution Unit.
“Air quality in the region around Beijing deteriorated as coal consumption increased during the past winter,” reports Unearthed, the investigative news arm of Greenpeace International. “Only four out of the 28 cities met their smog reduction targets, as shown by official data released by the Ministry of Ecology and Environment. The number of heavily polluted days increased by 37%.”
Over the same period, levels of hazardous PM 2.5 particulate matter fell 9.2% across the country, and 2% in Beijing.
The Beijing region “had a target of reducing PM 2.5 pollution levels and number of heavily polluted days by 3%,” Undark notes. “The target was determined by the central government, but in a departure from the previous winter, it seems that local governments were given wide berth in deciding and implementing the measures to meet this target.”
And “predictably, local governments did away with restrictions on industrial operation that had squeezed output and emissions in 2017-18. Production of steel products plummeted 26%, non-ferrous metals 18%, cement 23% ,and thermal power 4% in winter 2017-18, only to rebound 30%, 25%, 4%, and 16% during the past winter.”
The net result was a 13% increase in coal consumption in six provinces in the air pollution control region that “burn about 1,200 million tonnes of coal, 30% of the national total and more than the EU and the U.S. put together. The increase from winter 2017-18 to 2018-19, about 60 million tonnes, is more than Poland’s total consumption over the same period.”
Meanwhile, a study in the journal Nature points a finger at two provinces in eastern China as the source of a startling increase in ozone-busting trichlorofluoromethane (CFC-11), a chlorofluorocarbon that was banned by international treaty in 2012. “This manufactured chemical, once widely used to blow polyurethane into a rigid insulating foam, leaks into the air and destroys ozone molecules in the upper atmosphere,” the Washington Post reports. “CFC-11 is also a potent greenhouse gas, with roughly 4,750 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide.”
“This is a huge problem,” a State Department official told the Post. While the U.S. hasn’t yet determined to its own satisfaction that China is the source of the emissions, “if it’s a problem in another country, we’re also going to be suffering.”
When the CFC-11 release was first reported last year, scientists could only isolate it to eastern Asia. “Authors of the new report identify the provinces of Shandong and Hebei in eastern China as the likely source for at least 40% of the emissions,” the Post explains, based on air monitoring samples from stations in South Korea and Japan.
“Those sampling stations, which feature instruments that can tease out the molecular components of the air, showed periodic spikes in CFC-11. The researchers combined that data with weather forecasts and observations of wind patterns and ran a series of computer models to pinpoint the most likely origin of the emissions. The results pointed to the two Chinese provinces.”