MIT Study Doubts China's War on Pollution

MIT Study Doubts China's War on PollutionMIT Study Doubts China's War on Pollution

China's efforts to improve urban air quality are often viewed as a helper for fighting climate change, but a new joint China-U.S. study says otherwise.

The study—carried out by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tsinghua University in Beijing—was released in February. It shows that China's strategies for cleaning up air do not necessarily lead to carbon dioxide emissions reductions. Quoting the authors, Climatewire reported that China's effort could actually increase emissions in some instances.

"The urgency with which Beijing is tackling air pollution is certainly positive, and these efforts will also have related benefits in curtailing carbon dioxide emissions—to a certain extent," the report said. "But it would be a mistake to view the current initiatives on air pollution, which are primarily aimed at scrubbing coal-related pollutants or reducing coal use, as perfectly aligned with carbon reduction."

That is because once low-cost opportunities to reduce coal are exhausted, the continued displacement of coal from China's energy mix will become more expensive. If the focus remains narrowly on air quality, the researchers say, Chinese power producers will likely stick with end-of-pipe solutions—such as scrubbing pollutants from the exhaust stream of coal power plants—rather than switching to use more renewable energy.

China rolled out its Air Pollution Action Plan, which calls for limiting coal to 65 percent of the primary energy mix and prohibiting any increase in coal use in three major urban regions along the coast. In addition to displacing coal, the plan also promotes the installation of desulfurization, dust-removal equipment and other pollutant treatment technologies in industrial boilers, furnaces and power plants, particularly those close to cities.

For the report authors, an easier approach is to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions, which could ensure air pollution control does not come at the expense of sound, long-term climate change management.

"If China's leaders are willing to take aggressive steps to address climate change specifically by pricing CO2 emissions, they would make meaningful process on air quality too," the researchers said in the report.

"Such a prioritization can also help the government avoid part of an otherwise substantial investment in technology to scrub pollutants and emissions from coal-fired power that will, over time, end up locking in a high-carbon energy system."