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Why Coal by Wire Will be China’s Biggest Environmental Catastrophe Yet

Hiding the pollution doesn’t make it go away.

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Prediction: In five years time the air quality of big Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou will show marked improvement; in ten years it will be decent for urban centers of their size. Chinese officials will appear in news articles explaining the figures, the CCP will be lauded for performing miracles of post-industrialization. Though coal use and air pollution throughout China will not decrease. It will merely be decentralized.

Contrary to what is being stated as the country’s environmental targets, coal power capacity in China is being increased. According to the World Resources Institute, 363 new coal fired power plants are either being built right now or are in the planning stages in China, which will up the country’s coal-fired energy capacity by 75%. Right now, 78% of China’s energy currently comes from coal, as the country is already burning nearly as much of this energy source as the rest of the world combined. While these percentage points may fall against the country’s total energy capacity, this will only be because the total energy output is rapidly being doubled. Smoggy skies are set to stay over China for the foreseeable future.

Although around cities of focus, like Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, an all out war is being waged against heavy polluting industries and dirty power. Coal fired power plants are being shut down, environmental standards are being enforced to a greater degree, and big polluters are getting kicked out. While this certainly may clean up the air around these big cities it will more than likely have very little impact on the total amount of pollution China is creating on the whole. This is because these industries are not always being shut down per se, but are simply being chased away to lesser populated, lesser known, and lesser seen places.

Coal power plant in Inner Mongolia.

Coal power plant in Inner Mongolia.

Lesser populated, lesser known, and lesser seen places like Hulun Buir, Ordos, Yangcheng, and Fengtai. Coal by wire is a strategy to power China’s big, famous cities by coal plants placed hundreds or even thousand kilometers away. The coal is burned in power plants near the sources it is mined from, converted into electricity on-site, and then sent by wire over incredible distances to power hungry cities. The technological ability to transfer electrical power over these long distances without losing a significant amount of it has now been developed, so big cities like Beijing can try to have their coal-fed power and cleaner skies too.

. . . while Hulun Buir, Ordos, Yangcheng, and Fengtai chokes on their smog.

The goal is to eventually produce half of China’s coal derived electricity near the source of its extraction and ship it by wire to other places. While this cuts down on costs and expended carbon from shipping the coal via train, truck, and ship, it essentially just dilutes the sources of pollution by spreading them out over the country, adversely affecting the air quality of far more places in the process.

This strategy isn’t limited to coal power either, as “gas by wire,” “nuclear by wire,” and “hydro by wire” schemes are being built and implemented — Shanghai is the recipient of energy created by the Three Gorges Dam, a thousand kilometers up river. The goal is to ultimately create a “Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure,” where energy can be shipped by wire not only across China but all over East Asia and beyond. Taking this movement one tick further it’s not out of the question of turning remote places like Kazakhstan or Tajikistan into energy generating wastelands for all of Asia.

Power plant in Hulun Buir.

Power plant in Hulun Buir.

To travel through Inner Mongolia is to be perpetually ringed by coal-fed power plants — even in places far, far from any cities. There are grasslands out there, herders with flocks, small villages, yurts, and power plants. It’s almost surreal to gaze upon such diametrically opposed scenes. “The air is really clean here,” the people there would tell me, but as I stared out at a half dozen power plants looming in the distance I had to wonder if their take on their environment was a touch outdated.

When a heavily polluting coal-fed power plant is in a city there is a tacit understanding that the people who live there benefit from it, that they use the energy being generated so they partially deserve the smog they breath. But once you ship the power plants away you remove the city dweller from responsibility. They get the power and someone else gets the smog. The people Hulun Buir still boast about their air quality. They are proud that they can still see their big blue skies and breath air that feels vital and pure. But the coal plants are closing in fast, and the inevitable outcome is on the way. A gift from Beijing.

The decentralizing of heavy polluting industries is probably the biggest environmental threat that China is currently facing. Traditionally, big polluters gathered around each other in major manufacturing zones. Their environmental impact could readily be seen, the causal link between pollution, polluter, and product was direct, and the reason behind the wasteland was clear.

But having these big polluting industries together made them containable and controllable. Singular local governments could initiate environmental policy and enforce it. Though rather than doing this many are simply booting out their worst polluters, scattering them across the country. When Foshan cracked down on their heavily polluting porcelain industry the plants didn’t go under, they simply went out to the countryside beyond the bounds of the city’s control. When Wen’an shut down their horrendous plastics recycling plants they all scattered to various other parts of north China, exponentiating their environmental impact considerably. Now decentralized, it makes these heavy polluting industries virtually beyond the bounds of control, as they are now the problem of myriad smaller local governments who are less powerful, more cash strapped, easier to influence, and have less of a capacity to monitor and control them.

Coal plant in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Coal plant in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Where the heavy polluting zones of China were once centralized in certain corridors, they are now everywhere. Out of the way places that have never known pollution are now being inundated with factories and power plants. Once remote places like Poyang Lake and other previously untouched rural stretches of the country are now serving as dumping grounds.

Decentralization = deregulation.

“Heaven is above but Beijing is far away.”

As every child learns: hiding the broken vase under a bed doesn’t make it disappear. Sending a coal plant out to the grasslands of Hulun Buir where nobody is going to see it doesn’t make it stop polluting the air. While the dome over Beijing and Shanghai will take on a slightly less apocalyptic shade of grey in the coming years, the mess is merely being spread across the country, ultimately making it that much more difficult to clean up. Air pollution in China is being shipped out to marginalized people who don’t gain from it in any way. These remote, politically impotent, virtually unknown places will just eat it. Few city dwellers are going to venture way out to marvel at the looming catastrophe; no, they are going to sit in Sanlitun drinking lattes and swapping stories about the old days when they couldn’t see the sky, as their government officials are lauded for pulling off an environmental miracle.

Coal plant in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.

Coal plant in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.


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Filed under: Articles, China, Environment, Opinion, Pollution

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City