Coal, China, and Pollution

Urban Air Pollution in China

Air pollution in China is a global problem, because of climate change, and a California problem, because pollutants from China reach the U.S. West Coast.

An article in the current issue of Nature has good news and bad news about coal and pollution in China.  The good news is increased pollution control.  The authors estimate that “new equipment reduced SO2 emissions from China’s power plants by 1.5 million tonnes in 2005 and by 17.5 million tonnes in 2010 — 54% of the country’s total SO2 emissions in 2005 (32.3 million tonnes).”

The bad news is that this improvement is  largely offset by increased coal usage by industry:

Chinese SO2 emissions only decreased by 11% (to 28.7 million tonnes in 2010) because those from other sectors grew (see ‘China’s emissions battle’). Coal usage rose by 44% (955 million tonnes), more than one-third of which was consumed by industrial facilities (such as iron, steel and cement works) that have no desulphurization systems.

Here are some of the main recommendations:

  1. A cap could be set for national total coal consumption, and economic plans developed under this constraint. Tertiary service industries and high-technology projects could be promoted instead of energy-intensive ones.
  2. Greater authority should be given to environmental agencies at various levels of government.
  3. As well as reducing SO2 emissions, the government should endorse measures to limit soot.
  4. Controlling emissions from diesel vehicles should be a priority, and oil companies should be brought into accordance with environmental standards.

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Reader Comments

12 Replies to “Coal, China, and Pollution”

    1. bikeopeli – Your questions raises some interesting legal issues. Under section 179B(a) of the Clean Air Act, states can get approval for their implementation plans if failure to meet national air quality standards is caused by incoming international pollution. But there are two interesting wrinkles. First, the section is called “international border areas,” although none of the actual statutory text limits it to border areas. Usually, titles don’t modify statutory meaning, but there might be some argument to the contrary. Second, subsections (b), (c), and (d) exempt such areas from nonattainment for ozone, carbon monoxide, and PM-10. But PM-10 is much less of a concern these days than PM-2.5, and 179B doesn’t say anything about that (or about other pollutants that might drift here). I’d be interested in hearing from a CAA expert about how this provision is actually applied by EPA.

    1. bikeopeli – Your questions raises some interesting legal issues. Under section 179B(a) of the Clean Air Act, states can get approval for their implementation plans if failure to meet national air quality standards is caused by incoming international pollution. But there are two interesting wrinkles. First, the section is called “international border areas,” although none of the actual statutory text limits it to border areas. Usually, titles don’t modify statutory meaning, but there might be some argument to the contrary. Second, subsections (b), (c), and (d) exempt such areas from nonattainment for ozone, carbon monoxide, and PM-10. But PM-10 is much less of a concern these days than PM-2.5, and 179B doesn’t say anything about that (or about other pollutants that might drift here). I’d be interested in hearing from a CAA expert about how this provision is actually applied by EPA.

  1. My name is Jed Anderson and I am attorney and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law School where I teach the Clean Air Act class.

    The BAAQMD and other air regulatory authorities are actually offsetting these foreign pollution impacts by placing additional controls on local sources. The ultimate responsibility for addressing foreign pollution rests with the States and local air quality districts–as absurd as this might sound. The Clean Air Act provides the following:“Each State shall have the primary responsibility for assuring air quality within the entire geographic area comprising such state by submitting an implementation plan for such State which will specify the manner in which national primary and secondary ambient air quality standards will be achieved and maintained . . .” (42 U.S.C. § 7407(a)). Section 179B can potentially be used, but its generally not being used. I’ve been working for some time to raise awareness of this problem (see http://www.sipreform.com and http://www.sipreform.wordpress.com). Forty years ago when the Clean Air Act was written emissions from other countries was small and the phenomena of intercontinental transport had yet to have been fully discovered. The world has since changed. Our understanding has since changed. It’s now time for the Clean Air Act, and specificially the SIP process, to be transformed to reflect the new realities of our world.

    Thanks for writing about this issue and helping to spread further light on it.

  2. My name is Jed Anderson and I am attorney and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law School where I teach the Clean Air Act class.

    The BAAQMD and other air regulatory authorities are actually offsetting these foreign pollution impacts by placing additional controls on local sources. The ultimate responsibility for addressing foreign pollution rests with the States and local air quality districts–as absurd as this might sound. The Clean Air Act provides the following:“Each State shall have the primary responsibility for assuring air quality within the entire geographic area comprising such state by submitting an implementation plan for such State which will specify the manner in which national primary and secondary ambient air quality standards will be achieved and maintained . . .” (42 U.S.C. § 7407(a)). Section 179B can potentially be used, but its generally not being used. I’ve been working for some time to raise awareness of this problem (see http://www.sipreform.com and http://www.sipreform.wordpress.com). Forty years ago when the Clean Air Act was written emissions from other countries was small and the phenomena of intercontinental transport had yet to have been fully discovered. The world has since changed. Our understanding has since changed. It’s now time for the Clean Air Act, and specificially the SIP process, to be transformed to reflect the new realities of our world.

    Thanks for writing about this issue and helping to spread further light on it.

  3. China’s industrial growth depends on coal, plentiful but polluting, from mines like this one in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, behind a village store.The rapid growth in coal use in China and India, where pollution controls are minimal, is adding to local and long-distance pollution. More than 80 percent.
    Don Blankenship

  4. China’s industrial growth depends on coal, plentiful but polluting, from mines like this one in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province, behind a village store.The rapid growth in coal use in China and India, where pollution controls are minimal, is adding to local and long-distance pollution. More than 80 percent.
    Don Blankenship

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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