China coal drive will not end health risks: report

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s drive to promote clean coal technology is unlikely to reduce significantly the health risks of extracting what remains the dirtiest of fossil fuels, environmental group Greenpeace said.

A report released by Greenpeace and the China Disease Control Center said huge rates of coal consumption were a factor behind an increase in cancer and birth defects as well as non-specific and chronic nervous, immune and respiratory illnesses.

Coal-fired power plants contribute three quarters of China’s total electricity needs, but also around 70 percent of energy sector air pollution.

The government has been studying how to reduce its toxic effects, but “clean coal” remains a misnomer, said the group’s China campaign manager, Yang Ailun.

“There are many coal power plants saying they are now ‘clean’ but there are a lot of misunderstandings -- coal creates pollution and clean coal is impossible,” she said.

She said efforts to promote low-emission technology like highly efficient ultra-supercritical (USC) boilers or CO2-stripping carbon capture and storage (CCS) would not address health and environmental issues that arise from burning coal.

The report, issued on Friday, said coal produces 80 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming.

Yang said China has controlled sulphur dioxide and may impose restrictions on CO2, but has not addressed other pollutants.

China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection is revising atmospheric emission standards from thermal power plants, and restrictions on nitrogen oxides and breathable particulate matter could be imposed by next year.

But the industry has been lobbying for more government backing. Many in the sector also urge the United Nations to allow technologies like CCS to receive support from the clean development mechanism (CDM).

The CDM, which enables industrialized countries to invest in clean projects in the developing world in exchange for carbon credits, already supports coal efficiency projects. Yang said CDM financing should be restricted to projects like wind and solar.

China has made progress in commercializing USC boiler technology, but the feasibility of other technologies, like CCS, remains in question and they are not likely to get substantial backing in the 2011-2015 five-year plan.

Nor will the coal sector benefit from a 5 trillion yuan ($735 billion) investment package in new energy to increasing the share of non-fossil fuel energy in the overall energy mix to 20 percent by 2020, from 9 percent at present.

Fatih Birol, chief economist with the International Energy Agency, told Reuters last Friday that the aim of the programme was to reduce the share of coal.

“Of course it will be very good if efforts continue and if there will be investment in the clean coal technologies but I think looking at the programme now it is more about diversifying China’s electricity generation mix and decarbonizing.”

Reporting by David Stanway, Editing by Ron Popeski