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Cleaner Air in China Might Mean More Carbon Dioxide Pollution

Technologies that trap harmful particulate matter from power plants and factors might be helping improve China's air quality — but they are a disincentive for transitioning from coal-burning power plants to cleaner energy sources.

by Laura Dattaro
Mar 4 2015, 7:35pm

Photo via Flickr

China's push for economic growth has left it with a big problem: Its air is so polluted that in January, the mayor of Beijing called his own city "unlivable." In 2014, only eight of the country's 74 major cities met basic air quality standards.

Dire as that number is, it's an improvement over 2013, when only three cities met the standard. The modest improvement came about, in part, to an air pollution plan announced by the Chinese government in September of that year. That plan includes a ban on new coal-fired plants in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, efforts to increase the efficiency of existing plants, and reducing coal use to less than 65 percent of total energy production.

But the most effective methods available for cutting back on air pollution may clash with the country's stated goals of peaking carbon emissions by 2030 and could actually increase carbon emissions in the coming decades, say researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and China's Tsinhgua University.

Related: Only eight of China's 74 major cities passed government air quality tests

The problem goes something like this: While reducing coal use generally helps combat greenhouse emissions, air pollution from coal burning can be addressed by trapping fine particles that cause smog and the most serious health issues. That strategy relies on technology that can be attached to the smokestacks of factories and coal-burning plants to remove, or "scrub," specific pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, before they enter the air. But those technologies do nothing to prevent the release of carbon dioxide, and are themselves often powered by electricity, creating a fuel need that didn't previously exist.

"All of the carbon dioxide that was being emitted before is still being emitted," Valerie Karplus, an economist at MIT's Sloan School of Management and lead author of the report, told VICE News. "Now, if that equipment requires electricity and fuel to run, and that fuel is carbon intensive, then that additional fuel requirement could actually lead to an increase in emissions."

Environmentalists have long believed that addressing air pollution might also result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a win-win for the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world. But without a focus on achieving both, cleaning up the air might mean less smog but at the cost of increased emissions.

"I don't think the government fully considered all the potential consequences of not developing a comprehensive dual strategy," Barbara Finamore, founder of the China Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told VICE News.

Related:  Millions of Chinese watched an environmental documentary this weekend — and the government is happy about it

To avoid the worst of those consequences, the report argues for a financial incentive in the form of a price on carbon to discourage fossil fuel use, while encouraging investments in efficiency improvements at plants, and research on cleaner energy sources. It could also offset the cost of carbon capture and storage technology, which is similar to the scrubbing devises used to reduce pollution but is currently too expensive for factories and plants to employ.

Raising the price of carbon until it reaches $38 per ton by 2030 could reduce carbon emissions by about four percent each year, according to the study.

"This report is focusing on coal, which is the biggest part of the problem, but the oil use is also enormous," Finamore told VICE News. "The price on carbon would help coordinate the air pollution and emissions from that sector as well."

China is not new to carbon trading programs. Several industrial hubs have implemented procedures for capping emissions and the central government plans to implement a national program in 2016, though it may take up to 2020 to be fully operational, Karplus said.

"The government is taking steps in the right direction, important steps," Karplus told VICE News. "But the system will need to ensure that you have a strong enough incentive to really decarbonize, rather than to just make small changes at the margin."

Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro

Photo via Flickr

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