Scepticism over China’s air pollution plans

After months of negotiations, China has released a five-year action plan for cutting air pollution, which includes a ban on new coal-fired power stations. But Green groups say there is no chance of Beijing meeting its air quality targets

China’s action plan for air pollution, published this week, requires cuts in PM2.5 levels of 25% in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei area, 20% in the Yangtze delta, and 15% in the Pearl River delta, all by 2017.

Talks on the plan have been underway since spring this year, with a well-publicised tug of war between central and provincial governments over coal use.

The plan lists 33 measures, including further incentives for new-energy vehicles, fuel quality improvements, dealing with small coal furnaces and reductions in coal use in the three key regions.

Notably, there is a ban on new coal-fired power stations in three regions surrounding Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, with the exception of combined heat and power plants: “On the precondition that the highest environmental standards are met and water supplies are guaranteed, the commercialised and scaled development of the gas-from-coal sector.”

Other quantified targets for 2017 include a drop of around 20% in energy intensity of industrial added value on 2012 levels; and a fall in the percentage of coal use in total energy consumption to 65% or less. By 2015 150 billion cubic meters of new natural gas pipeline capacity will come online in the three key regions.

However, Greenpeace says that despite the government’s laudable determination, there is no chance of a 25% drop in PM2.5 levels in Beijing over the coming five years.

It has calculated that to achieve the 2017 target of a 25% cut in PM2.5 levels, coal use will have to fall by between 80 million and 90 million tonnes in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region over the next five years, while annual increases in coal use in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia will have to be restricted to 2% or less. The figures released by Beijing and its neighbours do not go this far.

Huang Wei, Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaigner, said that China’s air pollution problems are due to an over-reliance on coal. She said the action plan only talks about reducing coal. “There aren’t any genuine binding targets, and provincial governments are left to make their own commitments. That means any benefits for air pollution will be heavily discounted.”