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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.

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  • The plan to go coal-less is interesting and certainly ambitious to happen in five years time. By my opinion it is a quite short time for such essential changes. I guess they have been thinking about it for some time because of its magnitude and in matter of fact they have to change almost everything they had been using for many years. Apart of that this activity seems to be a right thing and it should become as an example for India or Brazil.

  • Yan Jin

    It sounds like good news that China is starting to resort to “greener” or “cleaner” energy sources for power but it surely makes one wonder about the effects it has on the economy, right? China mainly used coal as a major energy source because it was cheap, now that it’s going to switch to natural gas, wouldn’t that also increase the prices for electricity and heating? That doesn’t seem like something the poorer people in China would like or the richer people. While switching to cleaner energy sources is good, it also has it’s downsides. Hopefully, for China it’ll be mostly good progress with little downsides… but only time can tell.

  • Roger

    Right now in Beijing we see a lot of huge chimneys that burn coal for warmth during winter. I think the weather gets bad during winter. Going coal free would be a good solution for pollution but I don’t know what the city would do for warmth during winter if there would be no coal because using gas to warm the house during winter would be a lot more expensive. The electricity would also be more expensive because they will need to invest a lot and use a more expensive fuel. This has a lot of downsides too, especially for the poor people.

  • China has already been using coal for many years and right now it is one of the main factors of polluting the environment. I have seen several news about control the coal using in China or stop using coal resources. If China really going to run the coal-less rule in 2015; what are some of the possible energy manufactors will be in 2015 or after?

  • Kory Li

    now China have started to doing this, i was wondering why they don’t think it more early, perhaps because they’re conservative. As i do realize is that, China always be awake later than other countries, but if they do, they usually will improve very well. However, i used to hear that people from other countries knows more about China than China itself, like where the resources is and how is the polution. In my own opinion, China is a country on having very attention on face, in fact it hurts a lot like the polution and others. By the way, this is only my thought, and i’m glad to hear that China had do something with it.

  • Hi Jason, I agree with you. The plan to go “coal-less” is quite ambitious, but the Chinese in Beijing seem to not be all too surprised. I was recently guest lecturing to an environmental law class at Beihang University in Beijing, where a question of water shortages in China came up. The Chinese professors I spoke to said that “Beijing will always have water,” despite the fact that major droughts have hit all over Northeastern China and yesterday was the first day I’ve seen it rain here since October (not including snow).

  • Of course China can do it if the political will is there. Here in the US, coal extraction and power production are huge industries, with heavy corporate lobbying influence. In China, the State runs those industries, and can essentially turn them on or off at will. Not saying I’d want to live under the Chinese system, just saying.