A resident picks vegetables at a vegetable patch next to one of Wuhan Iron… (Darley Shen/Reuters )
Early on in Beijing’s winter of pollution-wracked discontent, one of China’s biggest power companies, Huadian, turned off the coal scrubbers at its Datong plants and let emissions of sulfur dioxide, a leading cause of acid rain and respiratory illness, soar to more than four times government standards.
Huadian saved money by turning off the scrubbers, which suck up power. What’s more, Huadian falsified paperwork and sold its electricity at a premium rate that the government offers to power plants with low emissions. Regulators caught the company. Twice.
Beijing is downwind of Datong, and coal-fired power plants like Huadian’s are just one of the culprits for the extreme bout of air pollution here over the winter, when the city’s air-quality index went off the charts that regulators use elsewhere. At a level of 755, U.S. Embassy readings in mid-January were more than twice what the Environmental Protection Agency says is so “hazardous” that people should avoid going outdoors.
The severity of the pollution — extreme even by Chinese standards — has rattled Chinese leaders. While they have, on occasion, closed factories and restricted traffic to clear the air for special events such as the 2008 Olympics, so far they have lacked the will or the capacity to reduce air pollution on a sustained basis.
But as people rushed to buy air filters and flooded China’s Web sites with complaints, the state-run People’s Daily said in a Jan. 14 front page editorial, “the fog and haze obscured our line of sight, but it made us see the urgency of controlling environmental pollution.”
Chinese officials recently told World Bank President Jim Yong Kim that Beijing’s winter air crisis had “really changed the public discussion” about climate change and pollution.
“In China, I sat down and not five minutes into my conversation with Premier Li Keqiang, he said, ‘We want to work with you on urbanization,’ ” Kim said in an interview. “We are working day and night with a huge team to come up with a plan to come up with clean, livable cities. The Chinese want to do it. . . . This is a huge issue with them.”
But while the government has vowed to step up enforcement of existing regulations, clamping down on polluters is a difficult task. Maximum fines are minimal, and evasion is rampant. In this respect, China’s command-and-control economy has more commands than control.
A side effect of a booming economy
The war on air pollution is being waged on three fronts: policing big coal and industrial plants like Huadian’s, enforcing standards on thousands of small boilers and dealing with the rapidly growing fleet of cars and trucks, which emit the small particles most harmful to human health.
As China’s economy booms, so do electricity needs. Zhou Xizhou, director of the energy consulting firm IHS CERA in China, estimates that the rate of coal plant construction has slowed from about two a week to a still-daunting one a week — and will keep that pace for five or six more years. That’s roughly equal to adding the coal-fired capacity of Texas and West Virginia combined every year. Coal’s share of China’s new power generation has dropped, but it still generates about three-quarters of the country’s electricity.
Some experts say China’s pollution problems could be reduced with regulations and equipment already in place. “Eighty percent of the coal-fired units in the country have sulfur scrubbers,” Zhou said. “Whether people run them is another question.”
An episode last year illustrates Zhou’s point. Like the Huadian example, this one is on the Web site of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which has compiled data on more than 4,000 firms, including 800 of the country’s biggest polluters.
In February 2012, a big electric power generator, Huaneng, switched off coal scrubbers at its Pingliang power complex in Gansu, and let emissions soar past permitted levels on at least two days. Because Huaneng was a repeat offender, irritated regulators imposed an especially severe fine of about $13,000. Given the energy saved by not running the scrubbers, Huaneng was probably saving more money than that every day. In November, the same plant was caught violating emissions standards again and was fined once more.
Compounding the problem
Small boilers used to power or heat urban buildings pose similar problems, but are harder to monitor.
The pollution spike last winter galvanized many government agencies. Starting Jan. 28, Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau fined a property developer three times in less than a month to force it to put antipollution equipment on boilers being used to heat 80,000 homes.
The developer, Beijing Dalong, is owned by the city’s Shunyi district government, which has $1.6 billion in assets. But the company had failed to install or use equipment to capture potent pollutants that were spewing from its coal-fired boiler.