News / Asia

China Takes Steps to Confront Pollution

Workers sail on a boat as they clean up a polluted river in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China, July 13, 2013.
Workers sail on a boat as they clean up a polluted river in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, China, July 13, 2013.
William Ide
China’s environmental watchdog made a rare decision this week to halt new projects for two top state-run oil companies after they failed to meet pollution targets.
Environmental groups welcomed the move, but as China grapples with the difficult balance of fueling continued economic growth and environmental protection, the move is just one small step.

China’s notoriously smoggy air and the environmental price it has paid for decades of fast economic growth has won the country much unwanted international attention. It is also a leading source of public discontent.

Increasingly, projects from coal-fired plants to petrochemical facilities have come under intense public scrutiny in China because of their feared environmental impact. In some cases, local officials have had to abandon the projects altogether following large public protests. 

The Ministry of Environmental Protection’s decision this week was made in part because of the growing pressure from the public, analysts say. The strong message was not only directed at the companies the halt targeted - China National Petroleum Corp. and China Petrochemical Corp. or Sinopec Group.

“This is a warning to all state-owned enterprises that they must work hard to shoulder the social responsibility that they bear as a state-owned enterprise,” said Yang Fuqiang, with the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

The decision was also a response to public criticism that China’s environmental ministry is not doing enough to rein in polluters, Yang added.

“The move by the Ministry of Environmental Protection is an effort to use their actions to show that they have the resolve to strictly enforce the law,” said Yang.

Public concerns and awareness about the environment has surged in China in recent years. Last January public concerns heightened when a severe wave of pollution hit Beijing and other parts of country. Later, the discovery of chemically tainted rice in Guangdong peaked concerns about water quality.

But as public concern grew, environmental groups and non-governmental organizations said much more needed to be done. One of China’s biggest sources of pollution is coal, an energy source that accounts for a large portion of the country’s massive energy needs.

Earlier this week, a new study warned that plans to build 22 more coal-fired power plants in southern Guangdong province could cause as many as 16,000 deaths over the next 40 years.

The study was conducted by Andrew Gray - a private air quality consultant - and commissioned by the environmental group Greenpeace. Gray said right now there were around 140 coal-fired power plants in the area and the additional 22 would increase local capacity by more than half of its current output.

“The amount of energy increase and demand is obviously growing very very rapidly in that area and so the decisions that are made will affect the people in that part of the world for a long, long time,” he said.

The Chinese government is working to improve environmental protection measures for coal plants and has begun a massive undertaking of consolidating the industry into 10 large and 10 medium-sized companies. The country currently has tens of thousands of small local mines where funding is lacking.

But, as China seeks to consolidate the industry, it also has plans to build even more coal-fired plants. The construction of the plants is not only an issue because of the pollution risks, but also because of their high usage of water.

“When we looked at our own analysis of 363 planned new coal fired power plants we found that over half of those are in high or extremely high water stressed areas…where there is already a lot of competition for the available water. Because coal fired power plants require a lot of water, for cooling and for energy generation that is only going to increase the strain in water supply,” said Betsy Otto, a project director at the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research group.

Environmental group Greenpeace tried to raise concerns about the demand coal puts on China’s limited water resources in late July when it issued a report on China’s biggest state-run coal company, Shenhua.

The report said a liquid-to-coal plant, Shenhua was not only polluting the environment by illegally discharging toxic wastewater, but also draining water levels in Inner Mongolia, where the plant was located.

The company has admitted to illegally dumping waste and is in the process of carrying out an environmental impact assessment that its plant has on the water resources.

Shenhua had until the end of the year to complete the review, but in the meantime operations continued - as did the company's plans to expand its operations there, said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Deng Ping.

“Water resources are not something that is going to change rapidly. What we have now, is what we have. The government’s plans for the expansion of coal production, however, is growing and growing at rapid pace,” said Deng.

The World Resources Institute says that 60 percent of the proposed power capacity for plants in the government plans will come from six provinces, including Inner Mongolia. Those provinces, however, are home to only five percent of China’s total water resources.

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