Politics & Policy

Problem for the Climate Warriors: China Needs More Coal Plants to Reduce Its Smog

Covering up in Beijing’s heavy smog, December 8, 2015. (Kevin Frayer/Getty)

The news out of the Paris climate talks is not exactly photogenic. So editors, searching for a visual, have relied over the past week on photos of China’s air pollution. There is just something fitting about Chairman Mao’s glowering portrait obscured by a thick veil of smog at Tiananmen Square.

It is an all too common convention: conflating the pollutants that cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems with the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Even those who know better persist. Witness Gina McCarthy, administrator of the EPA, who suggested Tuesday that her agency’s carbon regulations could be the answer to China’s smog.

It might seem pedantic to point out the difference between greenhouse gases and smog. After all, coal-fired power plants emit both. Yet this distinction is important, because it is likely that China and other developing countries will tamp down one variety of pollution even while continuing to increase carbon dioxide emissions.

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Perhaps the main reason it is wrong to conflate all of coal’s emissions types is that reducing one type of pollution at a coal plant often leads to more of the other. Want lower levels of smog (caused by nitrogen oxide)? Install a selective catalytic-reduction unit, which breaks NOx into water and nitrogen. Acid rain a problem? A dry scrubber is your answer; it turns sulfur to ash. The fine-particulate matter that causes heart and lung problems? A baghouse filtration system will do. Yet all of these systems themselves require energy to operate. This “parasitic load,” in industry parlance, means burning more coal to get each megawatt-hour of energy. And that means more carbon emissions.

Of course, environmentalists argue not merely for the retrofitting of coal plants, but for their closure altogether. Fair enough — if you live in the United States, where fracking and the abundance of less-carbon-intensive natural gas that fracking produces have been the best friend of the anti-coal faction. Even if environmental regulations did not make it impossible to build coal plants in the United States, it would nonetheless be more cost-effective in the U.S. to build a natural-gas plant.

SLIDESHOW: Bad Air in Beijing

Yet that is not China’s reality. Like every nation, China is a slave to the availability of resources, and it is cursed by a lack of natural gas. Hopes for substantial shale fields in China have fizzled. The cost of energy produced by a standard combined-cycle gas generator in Beijing is about 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with coal’s 6 cents, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That is not a rounding error.

I visited China this August with a delegation of state-utility commissioners and U.S. Department of Energy staff. It was clear that the priorities of the Chinese power sector were vastly different from our own. The most notable evidence of this was the tendency of the Chinese and Americans to talk past one another, even when deploying common terms. Our “pollution” is not their “pollution.” In the view of the American utility industry, that word these days most often means “carbon emissions,” but that’s not what anyone I talked with in China had in mind.

#share#Their pressing concern is the ambient air pollutants that hang like a shroud over their largest industrial cities. There should be little doubt that China will control these pollutants; things have simply gotten too visibly awful not to do so. Air pollution in China affects the daily life of virtually every Beijing resident, and, happily, mitigating this pollution is not an impossible task, because one does not need to shut down the economy to help clear the air.

Paradoxically, the campaign against air pollution in China appears to mean building more big coal plants. In the past several years, China has put online a 600-megawatt coal plant every three weeks, as part of a policy to replace older units and to electrify industries now run off of less efficient, dirty, on-site boilers. For all the buzz about renewables, they have not made a dent in China’s energy mix. Nor does nuclear or hydro rival coal’s dominance in China.  

RELATED: China’s Children and Climate Change — the Left Is Against Them Both

It isn’t exactly easy in China to balance economic growth and reductions in smog. But it will be far harder in the case of carbon dioxide. Carbon and GDP have usually followed each other in tandem, and no one has yet learned whether — or how fully — these two things can be decoupled. So far, only a few wealthy economies, such as that in California, have managed to do so, and even there, it is arguably illusory, since the West Coast lifestyle is supported by carbon-intensive manufactures elsewhere.

#related#China surpassed the United States in total carbon emissions in 2006. In 2012, they were about 9 billion tons. In 2020, they will be 13 billion. That is double what the United States will probably emit. And China’s emissions will keep increasing until they peak in 2030 — if, that is, the country follows through on its stated “intention,” submitted as part of the Paris talks.

For all its urban showiness, China still has a population of 800 million living on less than five dollars a day. When they come into their own, the question China may face is whether to live up to its carbon-emissions targets, let those people have the fridge or television they’ve been pining for, or accept very large increases in energy costs to do both.

— Travis Kavulla is the vice chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission and a former associate editor of National Review.

Travis Kavulla is director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the R Street Institute. He is a former president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners who held elected office as a Montana public service commissioner for eight years. Before that, he was an associate editor for National Review.

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