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Beijing to Go Coal-Less in 2015
Photo by bfishadow.

For more blue skies, Beijing aims to curb air pollution from coal energy. Photo by bfishadow.

Beijing’s recent string of blue-sky days may be a more common sight to behold in 2015. This past week, the Chinese capital released the five-year “Beijing Municipal Clean Air Action Plan,” which aims to increase the number of blue-sky days (i.e. “good” or “excellent” air quality days on the Air Pollution Index) to 80 percent by 2015. To achieve this lofty target, the Beijing government says the city will go coal-less.

Already, 2011 has seen an unprecedented 73 blue-sky days from January to March. This number represents an 81.1 percent year-on-year increase in the number of blue-sky days and three more than for the same time period as 2010, which had 286 blue-sky days.

Considering coal currently accounts for two-thirds of China’s total energy consumption and 80 percent of electricity generation, it may be hard to imagine what short-term energy innovations can replace the dominance of coal in Beijing’s energy mix. Beijing’s plan (available here in Chinese only) comes in five steps: promote economic restructuring to remove coal-intensive industry and associated pollution away from the municipal boundaries; implement six major projects to address energy and emissions; thoroughly control air pollutant emissions; and promote continuous improvement of air quality.

Replacing coal-fired equipment will be a major first step in Beijing’s quest for clean air transformation. The city currently has four large coal-fired power plants in the Chaoyang and Shijingshan districts, which it will replace with cleaner gas-fired ones over the next five years to bring up the proportion of natural gas to 20 percent of the energy mix. Additionally, a total of 520 coal-fired boilers will be replaced with pollution-free boilers, according to Chen Tian, the head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau.  The city will also prohibit high-polluting industrial enterprises to build plants in Beijing, in a sort of industrial migration that proved to be successful when steel manufacturer Shougang was moved to neighboring Hebei province to clean up the air prior to the 2008 Olympics. Heavy industrial activities, such as oil refining and cement production, will also be capped to 1,000 tons or less and 700 tons or less, respectively, to control air pollutant emissions.

On the consumer level, households near Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road that currently use coal-burning stoves for heating will be given access to the central urban heating supply and eventually have gas-fired or clean energy-sourced heating, as will residents in Beijing’s more central urban districts.

The transport sector is also addressed in the Plan, as Beijing will ban 400,000 old vehicles that do not meet emission standards by 2015. They are proposing new emission standards for light trucks and heavy-duty diesel vehicles to reach Class V standards by 2012. The city will also increase the amount of available public transport by 50 percent as efforts to improve air quality in the city.

The details of the Plan so far seem ambitious. Part of gauging whether Beijing is able to achieve an 80 percent boost in blue-sky days is in the process of measurement itself.  Some have questioned the accuracy of China’s Air Pollution Index (API) and the “blue-sky” metric as an indicator of air quality in Beijing. However, the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection is in the process of revising the nearly two decades-old API to be more in line with the calculation methodology, air quality gradings and communication of the United States’ Air Quality Index. I have written a post analyzing the draft proposals of these changes to the API here. However, it seems so far in the Beijing Municipal Clean Air Action Plan that the blue-sky metric will be used as the primary target to gauge the efficacy of these proposed measures.

Being based here in Beijing, I’ve discussed the Plan with friends and acquaintances, who have either expressed skepticism or confidence. While foreigners seem to doubt Beijing’s ability to significantly reduce coal from its energy supply, Chinese seem to think that where there’s strong political will, there’s a way. Beijing is the capital city of the Middle Kingdom, after all.