Carbon Credit Watch

China’s air pollution problem

(October 7, 2011) The real problem with China’s coal-fueled economic boom is the increase in nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions.  

Manish Oza
Probe International

According to an article in last week’s National Post, China’s carbon dioxide emissions are on their way up. China already emits more CO2 than the US. And a new report says that by 2017, it will overtake the US on emissions per capita too – which analysts say would put China firmly in the ranks of developed countries when it comes to climate change negotiations.

But Patricia Adams of Probe International says worse things are happening to China’s air than increased CO2 emissions: “Nitrogen oxides and mercury are also emitted when hydrocarbons are burned and those emissions are truly troubling.”

Burning coal, a common fuel in China for heating and electricity, releases both. China generated 80% of its electricity from coal in 2008 and, while this percentage is expected to decrease, China is still projected to add 485 gigawatts of coal-fired power by 2035 to meet rising energy demand. This trend is reflected in its emissions.

From 1995 to 2010, NOx emissions went up by 160%, and they show no signs of slowing. A recent report, citing 2005 data, named China the world’s biggest mercury emitter. Both pollutants can be dangerous for Chinese citizens, says Adams. NOx causes respiratory illnesses and mercury, a neurotoxin, gets washed into the water supply, ending up in the fish people eat. Nor are the effects limited to China: atmospheric mercury can travel from Asia and be deposited as far as North America.

Burning hydrocarbons also produces sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, which cause respiratory illnesses – but on that front, China seems to be making progress. According to a 2010 report in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the 53% growth rate in China’s SO2 emissions from 2000 to 2006 has been arrested, “mainly due to the wide application of flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) devices in power plants in response to a new policy of China’s government.”

China could make even greater leaps forward to improve its air quality, says Adams, who blames the country’s environmental problems on a dysfunctional legal system: “Give Chinese citizens the laws to make the polluter pay and they will protect their air quality superbly.”

12/10/11 UPDATE: According to a China News article, China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has announced new standards for emissions from power plants – tightening limits on nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, and for the first time including limits on mercury emissions. The new rules will be in force from January 2012. Read the article (in Chinese) here.

Further reading:

Arctic Pollution 2011

Global mercury emissions soaring

UN Global Atmospheric Mercury Assessment

Made in China: Our Toxic, Imported Air Pollution

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