China has undergone unprecedented growth as it has led the development and rise of Asia Pacific.
As the nation industrialised and built its economic might, it relied on many forms of energy. China soon became the leading consumer of coal, at one point using more than the rest of the world combined. Yet, in doing so the country experienced a reduction in air quality in its race to rapidly develop.
A study by Tsinghua University found this coal-generated power was the leading contributor to air pollution in China.
But now the country has developed, and its middle class has grown, bringing China to a crossroads as it again looks to its next transformation.
It is now exchanging its traditional coal-fired energy sources for a mix of cleaner fuels for industry and in the home.
The Chinese government has initiated this great “energy switch”, moving from coal to other fuel sources – such as gas, hydro, solar and wind power – to achieve the dual challenge of meeting growing energy demand as well as improving air quality. China’s Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydro-electric generator power plant, is just one example of this development.
This shift is aimed at preparing the nation for a more sustainable future without sacrificing energy.
Since 2013, the levels of harmful particles in the air – known as PM2.5 – in Beijing alone have more than halved, with much of the rapid reduction coming from switching from coal-fuelled boilers to cleaner fuels.
A recent United Nations study highlighted the efforts, with UN environment programme’s deputy executive director, Joyce Suya, commending the effort, stating “no other city or region on the planet has achieved such a feat”.
“Understanding Beijing’s air pollution story is crucial for any nation, district or municipality that wishes to follow a similar path [to cleaner air].”
Energy company ExxonMobil’s president of China Gas Marketing, Tze San Koh, said the initiatives are already having a visible impact on Beijing’s skies.
“LNG, amongst other fuels, played a critical role in this,” Koh said.
While the main use of gas is in power generation, the industrial and chemical sectors are also moving to gas, increasing their gas consumption by more than a fifth from 2017 to 2018.
“There is even the possibility for its use in steel manufacturing; the potential is immense,” Koh said.
Among its initiatives to improve air quality, the government had encouraged its citizens to use more gas at home and industry to use it instead of coal, helping them to clean the skies and breathe easier as part of its Blue Sky Defence.
The switch to gas in the home – away from coal and wood – has also improved the lives of ordinary Chinese people.
In 2017, it was estimated a third of China’s population was exposed to harmful emissions from household use of coal and other solid cooking fuels.
A switch to cleaner fuels and energy sources, like hydro, solar and gas, can also provide a boost to the economy. Research by the Chinese University of Hong Kong estimated that about RMB 267 billion (US$38 billion) of revenue is lost annually in the country due to the impacts of air pollution.
“Meeting the energy demands and needs of a growing China requires all sorts of technology and a mix of energy to help the Chinese government achieve its objective of pulling people out of poverty and building a strong middle class,” Koh said.
“Gas is a crucial fuel to achieve this objective.”