Rush to Burn Coal Turns China Into Asia's Polluter
BEIJING — THE coal-burning heater in Cheng Jingyuan's kitchen sits cold and covered with a blanket, its chimney pipe detached and propped against the wall during the humid Beijing summer. But when bitter winter winds sweep over the Chinese capital, the heater fueled by coal briquettes rages and spews as much grit and smoke into her house as outside, says the music teacher. ''We get a lot of smoke. This is a problem, but we can only use this kind of heat,'' says Ms. Cheng, tracing her finger along the wall grayed by coal smoke. ''The government is supposed to start digging to put in a gas line. I will have to spend more money for gas, but it will be cleaner,'' she says. ''But this project is quite slow. Officials have told me it depends on China's development.'' Coal, China's energy lifeline, is at the heart of a clash between the country's rush for economic growth and a mounting environmental crisis. As the world's largest producer and consumer of coal, China with its booming economy, is boosting energy demand rapidly and is expected to double consumption of the fuel and resulting pollution in two decades, Western researchers say. Already, China, which generates three-quarters of its energy from coal, is paying dearly for the mounting environmental stresses. Widespread coal burning in factories, power plants, and in homes poses growing dangers to Chinese residents of smoggy cities and rural areas inundated by spreading air pollution. Pollution costs China $95 billion, or almost 7 percent of its national output yearly, and will require more than $20 billion over the next decade to keep the mess from getting worse, the China Daily reports. Six out of the top 10 most polluted cities by the standards of the World Health Organization are in China. With 30 percent of the country drenched by acid rain, according to official estimates, pollutants blown from the mainland now threaten Japan, Korea, and Beijing's other Asian neighbors. Accounting for 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, China is now the fastest-growing major contributor to global warming. ''Their already-serious problem will become unacceptably serious without [their] taking action,'' says Charles Johnson, an expert on coal pollution at the East-West Center in Honolulu. As China's current consumption of 1.3 billion tons of coal rises to almost 2 billion in 2010 and 2.3 billion in 2015, he says China is slowly beginning to implement environmental technologies. ''Even then the situation is going to worsen over the next decade,'' he says. ''Pollution is becoming quite serious because China is using ... high-sulfur coal,'' says Wang Qingyi, at the coal ministry here. ''China's biggest difficulty is a shortage of funds for environmental-protection investment.'' As coal burning declines in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and other badly polluted regions, it is on the rise in the fast-growing countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, particularly in Asia. Coal use, mainly for generating desperately needed power, is expected to grow 60-70 percent over the next 15 years in many Asian countries, predicts Mr. Johnson. The region is projected to account for more than two-thirds of the global coal consumption by 2010, up from 43 percent in 1983. China and India, which have sizeable coal deposits and persistent energy shortfalls, will account for most of that rise. But the environmental cost of burning coal in the world's two population giants is potentially immense, experts say. China and India now account for 14 percent of global greenhouse emissions. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency, they will account for one-fourth of carbon dioxide emissions in 15 years. China's neighbors complain That prospect worries China's Asian neighbors who contend that they are getting hit by the fallout. As China's densely populated eastern seaboard has industrialized rapidly under economic reforms, Japan and Korea have been showered by acid rain from the Chinese mainland. The main source is southern China, which is the third-largest area in the world seriously affected by acid rain, after Europe and North America. A recent study funded by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank blamed China for one-third of sulfuric acid pollutants in South Korea. Acidity of rainfall over the Korean peninsula increased significantly since China embarked on its transition from socialism to capitalism in the late 1970s. However, the study also found that South Korea's problem was also caused by sulfur emissions from Japan and those of its own creation. The region's environmental crisis has reached such proportions that the Asian Development Bank has launched a three-year, $9.5 million study on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, which trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere and lead to global warming, in 12 Asian countries. The countries covered in the study, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, North Korea, South Korea, Mongolia, Burma, Pakistan, China, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, produce 3.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide yearly, a sixth of the world's total. ''Chinese pollution is spilling over....'' says an Asian diplomat in Beijing. ''Air, water, and even plant life is being affected by this problem.'' However, China refuses to shoulder all the blame for the region's environmental difficulties. Spending less than 1 percent of its national budget to fight pollution, Beijing claims it is more a victim of pollution than a cause, and has never been shy to use its problem as a bargaining chip with developed countries. Chinese planners recently horrified the world by announcing plans to construct dozens of new coal-fired power stations and up to 100 plants to produce chlorofluorocarbons, which are used as propellants in aerosol cans and regarded as the main culprit in damaging the ozone layer. According to an assessment prepared by the World Resources Institute in Washington, China still ranks behind the US and the former Soviet Union in percentage share of global emissions. Per capita emissions in the US are almost nine times those of China, the institute reports. A recent report prepared by China's National Environmental Protection Agency, the UN Development Program, and the World Bank warned that Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other coastal cities could be inundated by rising sea levels due to global warming. ''China doesn't want economic development constrained because of the industrial world's pollution,'' says Johnson, the coal expert in Hawaii. ''They think they shouldn't be penalized for what the West has done.'' Yet, China is slowly taking steps to grapple with its deepening problem. The National Environmental Protection Agency reported in 1991 that China was spewing out 23 million tons of particulates, three-quarters from coal-burning. Even with the government's current efforts at pollution control, particulate emissions are projected to climb to more than 30 million tons by the year 2000, according to Western researchers. Low energy prices a factor A major problem is China's poor energy efficiency and waste resulting from artificially low energy prices. A study by the Energy Research Institute in Beijing estimated a 40 to 50 percent energy savings if more efficient industrial boilers and furnaces were installed. Another cause is its inability to reduce coal usage due to depletion of its forests, say researchers. Like many developing countries dealing with deforestation, coal-fired stoves are the mainstay of many homes. Currently, natural gas, a cleaner substitute for coal, now accounts for only 2 percent of China's energy use, although the government is starting to reconsider gas as part of its effort to slow the growth of oil and coal use. Several major natural-gas pipeline projects are planned in what could assist clean-ups in Beijing, Shanghai, and other urban centers. ''China has a huge potential to save energy. A lot of efficient investments to replace old equipment would have a quick payback,'' says Jessica Hamburger, a researcher at Battelle, Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Washington. ''A lot of people suffer from burning coal in their homes in the countryside have no options.'' Chinese and Western experts say China will increasingly turn to clean coal technology to improve the environment. Currently less than one-fifth of China's mainly poor quality coal is ''washed'' - that is, treated chemically to remove sulfur content. Unable to afford expensive Japanese technology, analysts predict less sophisticated and more affordable Chinese methods to cut coal pollution. Both Japan and the US have helped fund energy efficiency research centers to assist China reduce acid rain. China is also working with American researchers and two US companies to develop methane as an alternative energy source. ''There hasn't been that much aid to China because of human rights,'' says Ms. Hamburger. ''Now the US is starting to do in China what it has done in Poland and other Eastern European countries.''