Cleaning Up China’s Air: Easier Than You Think

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A very interesting –and more to the point surprising– report by three professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to studying air pollution in China.
(Download the pfd file of the report here)

Money graf (I know I keep using this. It’s a habit I picked up from my former blogging colleague Andrew Sullivan who’s now at The Atlantic):

One of the most surprising findings was that “the kinds of technology currently being adopted in China are not cheap. They’re not buying junk, and in some cases the plants are employing state-of-the-art technology.”

The findings suggest that emissions levels from Chinese powerplants, he said, “depend almost entirely on the quality of the coal they use. When they’re hit by price spikes, they buy low-grade coal.” Lower-grade coal, which produces high levels of sulfur emissions, can be obtained locally, whereas the highest-grade anthracite comes mostly from China’s northwest and must travel long distances to the plants, adding greatly to its cost. Contrary to what many outsiders believe, the Chinese state has substantially improved its ability to implement and enforce rules on technology standards. It has been slower, however, to develop such abilities for monitoring the day-to-day operations of energy producers.

In other words, contrary to what is more or less popular wisdom, that antiquated, soot belching power plants are responsible for China’s awful air, it is actually a lack of political will –or perhaps better to say Beijing’s unwillingness to expend precious political capital. I guess the good news is that a great deal of the pollution problem that China itself has admitted causes hundreds of thousands of premature deaths a year could be fixed fairly quickly. (note that the report says the state has improved its “ability to implement and enforce”, not that it is doing so). The bad news is of course that despite the upgrade of the environmental watchdog to a ministry, there is no sign that the central government has an intention of enforcing existing laws and making all those power plants burn clean coal.