China’s horrible air pollution

In 2008, a detailed analysis of powerplants in China by MIT researchers debunked the widespread notion that outmoded energy technology or the utter absence of government regulation is to blame for that country’s notorious air-pollution problems. The real issue, the study found, involves complicated interactions between new market forces, new commercial pressures and new types of governmental regulation.

After detailed survey and field research involving dozens of managers at 85 power plants across 14 Chinese provinces, Steinfeld and his co-authors, Richard Lester [58 page report] (professor, nuclear science and engineering and director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center) and Edward Cunningham (doctoral candidate, political science) found that in fact most of the new plants have been built to very high technical standards, using some of the most modern technologies available. The problem has to do with the way that energy infrastructure is being operated and the types of coals being burned.

New market pressures encourage plant managers to buy the cheapest, lowest quality and most-polluting coal available, while at the same time idle expensive-to-operate smokestack scrubbers or other cleanup technologies. The physical infrastructure is advanced, but the emissions performance ends up decidedly retrograde.

Air Pollution incidents have been particularly bad in the last year or two in China

Last January, Beijing’s level of fine particles, 2.5 microns in diameter or under and known as PM 2.5, reached at least 20 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization for a 24-hour period. This prompted a scrambling government to ram through new air-quality protections.

China’s regulation to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants may be one of the most swiftly effective air pollution policies ever implemented anywhere. Those emissions fell sharply from 2006 to 2010, according to a new study by Chinese and American researchers that we took part in, preventing as many as 74,000 premature deaths from air pollution in 2010.

Fines were way too small. Penalties were cheaper than turning on pollution controls

In Sept, 2013, the Beijing government released its second draft of the regulation on Sept 25, scrapping the 1-million-yuan ($ 163,396) limit and adding five categories of illegal behavior to a list of those for which fines will be doubled.

In March 2013, in China, however, the maximum statutory fine for failing to operate the facilities of air pollutant treatment is 50,000 yuan ($7,653), and fines for violating emissions standards cost 100,000 yuan ($15,873) at most. Because it costs less for factories to pay penalty fees than to install emissions control equipment, businesses in China often ignore environmental regulations or opt to pay fines rather than comply with standards.

There was talk about executing those who are the biggest polluters in mid-2013 to quell populist protests.

So why are China’s efforts at emissions control falling short?

There are several reasons. One of them is China’s instinctual response to such challenges: a top-down approach to try to engineer its way through them according to master plans. The result is that China may be winning battles but not the wars on emissions control, because its faith in mandates has met its match: an economy that is growing too fast, and atmospheric challenges that are too multifaceted for even the smartest planners to tame.

China has made enormous investments to decarbonize its energy system. In less than 10 years it has built the world’s largest wind power capacity, with plans to triple it by 2020. Its hydropower capacity, also the largest in the world, is expected to triple from 2005 to 2020, and its nuclear capacity will multiply at least sixfold over that same period. And China is increasing imports and production of natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel. But coal use is still going up from 3.6 billion tons to 4.8 billion tons per year by 2020.

A modest tax on carbon dioxide, starting small and rising to about $10 per ton in 2020, could sharply lower the growth of emissions with little effect on G.D.P. growth and consumption over the long run. In the short run, some energy-intensive industries and segments of the population would incur losses, but the tax revenues offer a source for compensating them during an adjustment period. The same tax would prevent as many as 89,000 premature deaths a year from pollution by 2020, and even improve crop productivity. A larger tax, of course, would bring greater benefits.

Another important step for Beijing to take is to strengthen health standards used to formulate air standards. As Steven Andrews of the Energy Collective has explained, even after revising its ambient air quality standards last year, pollution levels in China that are six times higher than U.S. standards are still rated as good air quality. Beijing’s annual average of fine particulate matter at over 90 ppm is far higher than the worst smog level in Los Angeles, at 60 ppm. One Chinese academic warned that air pollution is even more frightening than SARS because no one can escape it. The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that the recent smog across China has affected more than 800 million people. Of those, people working outdoors in large Chinese cities are especially vulnerable. Up to 40 percent of traffic police are found to have nasal inflammation and 23 percent with throat inflammation; that’s 33 to over 50 percent higher than the general population.

It would be easy to monitor compliance

It would be easy to build realtime monitoring systems to detect those who are failing to comply with pollution controls. Then it would just be a matter of preventing bribery and corruption from preventing enforcement. The plants and factories that were over-polluting could be forced to shutdown on the same day until they remediated.

China can afford to clean up.

In the meantime they can use systems like waterspraying off of skyscrapers in cities to reduce pollution from 20-40 times worse then World health limits to World health limits or only double.

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