BEIJING — In March, Beijing city officials announced they are closing the remaining four coal-fired power plants and are replacing them with cleaner burning natural gas and renewable sources.
This is an attempt to clear skies that are choked with smog. Beyond the less than ideal aesthetic conditions, the smog is causing substantial health risks to the citizens of Beijing.
Deaths from respiratory illnesses have jumped an astounding 465 percent over the past 30 years. This trend coincides with China’s breakneck economic growth during that time period, which has been fueled primarily by the burning of coal.
Air pollution isn’t just a Beijing problem. More than 90 percent of China’s cities failed to meet air quality standards in 2014. However, Beijing’s air pollution is two times worse than the average Chinese city.
The fact that city officials recognize the problem and are taking steps to combat it is good news — for the health of its citizens and economy alike. Beijing’s poorest citizens live closest to the plants and breathe the brunt of the toxic emissions.
The smog also hurts business. On days with hot and non-windy conditions, the smog tends to bog down in the city. To combat this, Beijing city officials have devised a tiered system that restricts vehicles at certain smog levels. For example, construction trucks and other heavy vehicles are banned from the roads during red and orange alerts.
Residents are only supposed to drive every other day to reduce smog.
For the low-income constituents, these restrictions — although necessary — are hurting their chances to work and earn the money they need to become economically secure. The announcement that Beijing’s remaining coal plants will be shutdown by 2016 should be well received.
What’s happening in Beijing epitomizes what the rest of China is doing. Coal use dropped 2.9 percent in 2014, the first time that has happened since 2001. All records indicate that there will be a sharper drop this year.
China has also closed more than 2,000 coal mines since 2013. The world’s biggest polluter took 3.3 gigawatts of coal power offline last year alone. Although coal still makes up 64 percent of the country’s power supply, China’s willingness to cut its use should be applauded.
The closing of Beijing’s four coal plants will cut carbon emissions by roughly 30 million tons annually. It will also lower the number of premature deaths, which number around a quarter of a million per year.
Beijing proves that rapid economic expansion supported by burning coal eventually becomes counterintuitive. The excess carbon pollution presents substantial health risks to everyone, especially the poorest, which drives up health costs. It also ends up hurting the economy by limiting when businesses can operate.
Since it is reducing its reliance on coal, China is reinvesting in renewable energy. According to ThinkProgress, China invested $84 billion in renewable projects last year. This alone could create more than a million jobs for the economically disadvantaged.
Although Beijing and China both have a long way to go, the city has taken the right steps to help in reducing pollution. Because of that, the city’s poor may be helped as well.
– Kevin Meyers
Sources: Bloomberg 1, Bloomberg 2, Think Progress, Reuters