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China pollution

China’s environment chief touts ‘clean’ coal tech but admits people need to clean up their act too

Refitted power plants can reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, but robust supervision remains key, Chen Jining says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 10:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 10:30pm

Environment Minister Chen Jining said China was spearheading efforts to promote cleaner use of coal, requiring coal power plants to cut emissions to about on par with using natural gas.

But he admitted proper governance and supervision were key to achieving a clean environment.

The mainland launched a nationwide programme at the end of last year to refit all coal-fired power plants with “ultra-low” emission technologies by 2020.

“This will overturn many people’s belief that coal is dirty,” Chen told a press conference in Beijing on Friday.

Coal has been increasingly blamed as a major contributor to the nation’s smog crisis as it accounts for more than 60 per cent of the mainland’s energy mix.

“The public has too much of a negative view of coal. It’s time to clear its name,” said Lin Boqiang, director of Xiamen University’s China Centre for Energy Economics Research.

“After all, coal will remain the country’s prime energy source for a long period of time.”

READ MORE: China’s environment ministry unveils restructuring plan aimed at making it more effective

However, while the technology exists to significantly lower emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the installation and operation was costly, Lin said. Neither did the technology reduce how much carbon a plant emitted, he added.

China has pledged to peak its carbon emissions no later than 2030 and is under pressure to hit the target much earlier.

The comments from Chen, who holds a doctorate in environmental engineering, underline a typical mindset of mainland environmental officials – that technology holds the key to solving the country’s pollution woes.

Officials tend to overlook the fact that the country’s problematic environmental governance system means the best green technologies can often lay idle.

Greenpeace said the technology promoted by Chen could not guarantee continuous and stable “ultra-low emissions”, due to supervision loopholes. An investigation by the group last year found that 12 out of 26 “ultra-low emission” coal plants were emitting more than the standards set for such plants.

Chen acknowledged governance was problematic, noting a “vertical management” scheme was being tested at the local level in 17 provinces for one year.

Under the new system, city and county-level environmental protection departments report to the provincial environmental authority, rather than to the city and county government. The mechanism was expected to reduce local protectionism that had sheltered polluting companies, Chen said.

READ MORE: Beijing approves masterplan to protect environment after decades of breakneck economic development

“Some local governments intervened in pollution monitoring and law enforcement, and failed in their duty to protect the environment,” he said. “We have to hold the local governments accountable, so that they can ensure companies abide by the law.”

He pledged that China would not return to an era of pursuing economic growth at the expense of the environment despite the slowing economic growth. The claim that closing down polluting factories had stalled growth was false, he said.

“We have abandoned the former idea that development is at odds with environmental protection, but rather believe the two elements can be unified and balanced,” he said.