Toxic smog in Beijing, 16,000 dead pigs in the tributaries of the Shanghai river, birth defects from pollution, no safe drinking water in any Chinese city: Premier Li Keqiang has promised to respond to China’s environmental problems with an ‘iron fist and firm resolution’.
But one crucial aspect of China’s energy strategy unlikely to change soon is its reliance on coal – it burns almost as much as the rest of the world combined. There have been claims that consumption will plateau by 2015, but several massive infrastructure projects suggest otherwise. The West-East Electricity Transfer Project will supply the cities of the east with electricity transmitted along hundreds of miles of cables from power stations in the coal-rich western provinces (especially Xinjiang). One obstacle is a shortage of water in the west: coal-fired power plants require large amounts of water to remove impurities from the fuel and provide steam for the turbines. The plan is to redirect water to these regions as part of the South-North Water Transfer Project, which is already diverting huge quantities from the Yellow River and the Yangtze to feed the demands of northern cities.
As a result rivers have dried up and rural communities have been forcibly resettled. It’s even been argued that the Zipingu Dam caused the 2008 Sichuan earthquake which killed as many as 69,000 people. Such large-scale projects used not to be met with much resistance, but the internet has made it easier for ordinary people to talk about and protest against them.
China gets a lot of bad press for the dirty sides of its energy policy, but it’s also the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy. There have been other encouraging signs – there’s talk of introducing a carbon tax; Beijing and other major cities have put a limit on the number of car registrations – but the much-flouted existing environmental laws (covering factory emissions, for example) also need to be enforced. No one is pretending that things are likely to improve soon; Beijing’s target for achieving clean air is in 2030.