Kentucky voices

Don Mills: China's pollution turning nation from coal to renewable energy

April 23, 2014 

BEIJING, China — China, the world's second largest economy, is feeling the pinch from its air pollution.

A dark, gray cloud that the local weather bureau described as "heavy fog" has shrouded this city for well over a year. It is blamed on large coal-burning boilers used for heating homes and running factories, motor vehicle emissions and a lack of enforcement of environmental laws that they claim they do have in existence.

The air pollution that affects Beijing and many Chinese cities here is turning top executives from foreign countries away, according to a Reuthers Report that cited results of a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce.

Some 48 percent of the 365 foreign companies that reported said their executives were unwilling to relocate to China because of the poor air quality, declared the China Daily, an English-written newspaper which has some government control over its contents.

The rapidly eroding environment across China has become an issue of paramount concern to many Chinese. Outrage boiled over as air pollution in north China reached record levels, well beyond what western environmental agencies consider hazardous and healthy. Cancer deaths are up considerably, according to the report.

The public fury forced propaganda offices to allow official Chinese news organizations such as the China Daily to report more candidly as more and more Chinese placed on their breathing masks to ward off the choking smell in the air.

Despite a recent economic report that showed weakening investment growth, Chinese officials are still on the upbeat, saying they expect the trend to reverse in the next quarters.

Fixed-asset investment growth in the first three months of 2014 dropped to a record low of 17.9 percent, down from 19.3 percent for the whole of 2013. Industrial output in the January-March period dropped to the lowest reading since April 2009.

Policy makers and the Chinese public rightfully blame lax environmental controls and shoddy enforcement for the poor air quality in Beijing, which they feel is affecting the economy and growth.

The situation does not bear well for Kentucky and other American states where coal is a prominent part of the economy. While China mines more coal that any other country in the world to keep its industrialization humming and people warm, it is having second thoughts on using coal and the need to import more coal from places like Kentucky.

Instead, China is trying to improve efficiency, and diversify its energy mix to take care of its industries and the heat for homes, including investing more in nuclear energy, natural gas from shale and wind power. Many of the technological solutions are costly and difficult to scale-up rapidly.

So, there is no silver bullet to quickly and cleanly solving the problem.

I first came to China in 1978 when millions of bikes were the main means of transportation in Beijing, where open-fire grills, now banned, were everywhere, serving food to the public, bufflalo-drawn wagons traveled the main street and our hotel, the Peking, was the largest structure in the city with six stories.

Now all that has changed dramatically. Beijing is big and prosperous with hundreds of high-rise buildings, automobiles occupy the streets, the city of 20 million people has its own subway and few bikes are ever seen.

The fact that the government is now concerned about air pollution as a result of pressure from the public, and allowing the media to discuss the subject fully, means that the air problem, though costly, will be solved.

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