China on track to meet its ultra-low emissions goal for 2020

By Teodor Teofilov

The world’s largest source of greenhouse emissions, China is on track to meet its ultra-low emissions goal for 2020, according to new research published in Nature Energy on October 7.

A group of economists and environmental scientists in China and the UK built and analyzed a massive database of emissions measurements to see how much of a difference the 2014 ultra-low emissions policy has made. They found that China’s emissions of some common air pollutants had dropped by 65 percent to 72 percent in just three years.

China’s goal: Cleaner air and skies

Nearly four decades of breakneck economic growth turned China into the world’s biggest carbon emitter, but recently the government is trying to change that without damaging the economy, and maybe become a world leader in technological innovation through its green policies.

Air pollution is a global health problem and according to the World Health Organization, 4.2 million deaths every year are a result of exposure to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, and 91 percent of the world’s population lives in places where air quality exceeds WHO guideline limits.

China’s pollution problem is particularly severe, and in 2016, about 1.6 million deaths were attributed to pollution. To tackle this, in 2014 the country introduced a ultra-low emissions policy that targeted sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter (fine airborne particles) that has been driving the air pollution crisis in China. The new, strict standards for coal-fired power plants had an ambitious goal and timeline — 71 percent of existing plants needed to meet the new standards by 2020. These standards also aim to limit the sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions to 35, 50 and 10 milligrams per cubic metre respectively.

The researchers drew on the official Chinese government network of monitoring systems that track emissions across the country — power plants above a certain size are required to install emissions monitoring equipment. The Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems network covers up to 96-98 percent of Chinese thermal power capacity and allowed the researchers to access hourly measurements from thousands of power plants between 2014 and 2017.

The results showed a dramatic decrease in all three pollutants at coal power plants with sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter dropping by 65 percent, 60 percent and 72 percent each year respectively from 2.21, 3.11 and 0.52 million tonnes in 2014 to 0.77, 1.26 and 0.14 million tonnes in 2017, which is in compliance with ULE standards.

China has been increasing its overall power generation capacity, while coal plants have been cutting their emissions so emissions as a whole didn’t drop as far as the decrease seen in existing coal plants.

This means that China looks to be on track to further reduce its emissions if all thermal power plants meet the ultra-low emissions standards by 2020. These standards aim to limit the sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter emissions to 35, 50 and 10 milligrams per cubic metre respectively.

Hitting its targets

By Dec 2017, 72.3 percent of the coal power in China had hit the ultra-low emission policy targets, well before the 2020 deadline. If the decrease rate continues at this pace, the goal of 80 percent compliance by 2030 could be reached early.

“This is encouraging news for China, as well as other countries wishing to reduce their power emissions,” said Mi Zhifu, a climate change economist from University College London, who co-authored the study. “Thermal power plants combusting coal, oil, natural gas and biomass are one of the major contributors to global air pollution.”

Mi said the results demonstrated the technical and economic feasibility of controlling emissions from power plants, which he described as “an important step towards reducing the number of deaths attributable to air pollution”.

The study showed that previous methods of estimating Chinese power emissions overestimated numbers by at least 18 percent, and in some cases up to 92 percent. This was because the previous research was made before the introduction of the ultra-low emissions standards and looked at how the standards might affect emissions based on assumptions of changes in emission concentrations.

“With coal being the most widely-used fuel in China, cutting the number of thermal power plants within a short timeframe would be challenging. The results of this research are encouraging in demonstrating that coal can be used in a much cleaner way to generate electricity,” said Mi in a statement.

The study was a collaboration between University College London, Beijing University of Chemical Technology, Beihang University, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (Beijing), HeBei University of Science and Technology, the University of Science and Technology (Beijing), Xi’an Jiaotong University, the University of Cambridge and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Beijing).

The government of China is trying to move the country toward a greener future. It already has more solar capacity than any other country in the world, is home to several massive solar farms, including the world’s largest in the Tengger Desert, and is the biggest clean energy investor in the world. Hopefully China’s success story fuels further efforts to limit the effects of climate change.

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