Coal Plants and China

Co-authored by Lauri Myllyvirta, Greenpeace International

Yesterday news broke that Chinese authorities scrapped a huge proposed coal plant over environment and air pollution concerns. No need to do a double take, it's true. The world's largest coal consumer, home to a potential coal bubble, just shelved an enormous coal project over pollution concerns. This news comes just days after headlines screamed that coal use is up 50% globally. It looks like our Chinese friends responded by underscoring that local communities fed up with dealing with the deadly pollution can, when provoked, be an even more powerful force than the coal industry.

First let's put this in perspective. In Europe or the U.S., a huge 2,000-megawatt coal power project (roughly the size of four average US coal plants) next to a megacity of 10 million would top the list of polluting power plant proposals and attract intense scrutiny. In China, which has continued to add an equivalent amount of capacity every few weeks, permitting a project like this half a year ago was still business-as-usual. It's what happened after the projects preparatory work got underway that bent the arc of history in China.

The 2,000-megawatt power plant was planned on the coast of South China Sea, 50 kilometers from the megacities of Shenzhen, population 10 million, and Hong Kong, population 7 million. Greenpeace estimated that the new power plant would cause 1,700 premature deaths over its operating life, despite being fitted with state-of-the-art SO2, NOx and particulate filters.

With the terrible air pollution in the Pearl River Delta region around Hong Kong drawing increasing public ire, and recent air pollution episodes still fresh in people's memory, the project faced a thunderstorm of public opinion. Remember this is a public that has woken up to the damage coal causes by living through 'Airpocalypse.' They are now recognizing that coal-burning is the main cause of China's severe air pollution problem and they're not happy about it.

Following criticism in social media and traditional media, 43 members of the city's People's Congress petitioned the administration to cancel the project and not to allow the construction of any new coal-fired power plant anywhere within the city's borders. The administration reacted only a few weeks later, asking the power company to stop the power plant construction. And just like that local citizens halted an enormous coal plant.

What makes this case unique is that while power plants and other industrial projects regularly face opposition because of land and water issues, this is the first project that has been cancelled mainly on the basis of concerns about air pollution. China has made astonishing progress in installing filters in its massive coal-fired power plant fleet. However, what has been gained through improvements in end-of-pipe controls has been offset by the doubling of coal burning over the past decade. The gains from new air pollution regulation being squandered by expansion of coal burning was a key argument against the power plant project in Shenzhen. Nearby Guangdong still has a large pipeline of new coal-fired power plant projects, but the public concern on air pollution and pressure to stem coal use will make these increasingly unlikely to be implemented now as well.

There is increasing recognition that the air pollution crisis cannot be solved without putting brakes on coal consumption. For Chinese citizens - for citizens around the world for that matter - that news, and the steps average citizens are taking because of it, is really, really good. Take a moment and let it sink in. When we look back this may well be a watershed moment in our efforts to address air pollution and finally turn the tide in the fight against climate change.

Photo Credit: Coal Plant Pollution/shutterstock