Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow

The rapid Chinese economic growth is based on cheap coal which has serious environmental and health issues for them and the world.

The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an immediate threat to the health of China's citizens, contributing to about 400,000 premature deaths a year.

Already, China uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined. And it has increased coal consumption 14 percent in each of the past two years in the broadest industrialization ever. Every week to 10 days, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego.

These particles are dense enough that, at maximum levels during the spring, they account at higher altitudes for a fifth or more of the maximum levels of particles allowed by the latest federal air quality standards. Over the course of a year, Chinese pollution averages 10 to 15 percent of allowable levels of particles. The amounts are smaller for lower-lying cities, like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Amazing that 10-15% of air pollution in the the US is caused by Chinese coal.

The tricky part for me is whether the Chinese people themselves are better off.
Years ago, the mountain village where they grew up had electricity for only several hours each evening, when water was let out of a nearby dam to turn a small turbine. They lived in a mud hut, farmed by hand from dawn to dusk on hillside terraces too small for tractors, and ate almost nothing but rice on an income of $25 a month.

Today, they live here in Hanjing, a small town in central China where Mr. Wu earns nearly $200 a month. He operates a large electric drill 600 feet underground in a coal mine, digging out the fuel that has powered his own family's advancement. He and his wife have a stereo, a refrigerator, a television, an electric fan, a phone and light bulbs, paying just $2.50 a month for all the electricity they can burn from a nearby coal-fired power plant.

Indeed, the Wu family dislikes the light gray smog of sulfur particles and other pollutants that darkens the sky and dulls the dark green fields of young wheat and the white blossoms of peach orchards in the distance. But they tolerate the pollution.

"Everything else is better here," Mr. Wu said. "Now we live better, we eat better."
How can you tell people that believe, even with the pollution, that they are better off that they need to change? Especially when European and American economic growth went through a similar environmentally bad period and we still produce CO2 and other pollutants at a higher per capita rate than they do?

It also appears the government has exacerbated the problem by keeping coal and oil prices low.
And Chinese power utilities are facing a squeeze. The government has kept electricity cheap, by international standards, to keep consumers happy. But this has made it hard for utilities to cover their costs, especially as world coal prices rise.

The government has tried to help by limiting what mines can charge utilities for coal. Mines have responded by shipping the lowest-quality, dirtiest, most-contaminated coal to power plants, say power and coal executives. The utilities have also been reluctant to spend on foreign equipment, steering contracts to affiliates instead.

But curbing that usage would be impossible as long as China keeps energy prices low. Gasoline still costs $2 a gallon, for example, and electricity is similarly cheap for many users.
via NY Times

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