Fear the Airpocalypse
Dreaming of Blue Skies over Beijing
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  • free_agent

    Are they even using the air pollution control equipment that is standard in the West? We generate a lot of power from coal in the US, but the pollution output of our coal plants isn’t anywhere near that hideous.

    • Thirdsyphon

      Apparently only 15% of Chinese coal plants use scrubbers, probably because Beijing’s central planning targets have been focused exclusively on generating power to feed their ravenous manufacturing sector, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else.
      Pollution control equipment can be effective, but it’s costly to install and maintain; and it only works up to a point. I’m having a hard time getting clear numbers on the cost of retrofitting uncontrolled plants with modern filtering technology. Only environmentalists, energy lobbyists, and the companies selling these solutions seem interested in studying this topic, and all of them have strong incentives to slant their analyses. And in any event the effectiveness of these technologies seems to vary due to local conditions like the technical competence of the power plant’s operators and the baseline quality of the coal being burned as fuel. Neither of those factors seems to favor China, where the energy industry has almost no familiarity with mitigation technology and the local “flavor” of coal, though plentiful, contains an exceptionally high level of toxins.
      In the U.S., by contrast, a large part of what’s helped us get our toxic coal emissions under control is our ongoing switch from the high-sulfur coal found in Appalachia to the purer coal drawn from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. (Although even Appalachian coal has less sulfur and other toxins than the Chinese average).
      Basically, China has its work cut out for it.

  • Boritz

    Shale gas, nuclear, and information economy, but what about Al Gore and carbon credits? In theory, with enough credits the smokestacks can continue to belch.

  • Thirdsyphon

    China could also invest in installing scrubbers in its currently existing stock of coal plants (only 15% have them now) to at least remove some of the sulphur dioxide and gross particulate matter from their airborne emissions, although that’s an expensive and imperfect solution.
    It’s expensive because, in addition to the cost of the scrubbers themselves, the pollutants they filter out still have to go somewhere which is usually into the local water table. That’s still preferable to breathing the stuff, but it’s not exactly a boon to the ecology or to human quality of life.
    It’s imperfect because not even the best scrubbers can filter out 100% of gross particulate matter and sulphur dioxide, and there are subtler pollutants (such as mercury and ultrafine ash particles) that they don’t catch at all. These pollutants have resulted in a 465% increase in China’s rate of death by lung cancer over the past 20 years.
    Please note that the above has nothing to do with CO2, global warming, carbon credits, or Al Gore. Reasonable people can agree to disagree about all that, but there’s nothing remotely speculative about the direct human health consequences caused by coal emissions. With the right technologies in place, those risks can be mitigated (as we’ve done in the U.S.) but never eliminated entirely.
    The fundamental problem is that coal is a profoundly filthy source of energy –again, I’m talking here about toxins, not CO2– and there’s only so much that can be done to clean it up. It’s a cheap solution in the short run, as most early industrial economies have discovered, but over the long term its shortcomings become apparent, which is why most countries have moved away from coal energy as soon as they got rich enough to afford to.

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