Special Reports
MIT: Dirty Coal to Blame for China Pollution

By Graham Webster
October 12, 2008

In a rare independent study of China's energy sector, researchers at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology have found that the problem with China's coal power
generation is not that its power plants lack cleaner technology.

The emissions are definitely higher than they could be, the report found, but
the culprit is usually low-quality coal rather than low-tech plants. As an MIT
statement explains:

Lower-grade coal, which produces high levels of sulfur emissions, can be
obtained locally, whereas the highest-grade anthracite comes mostly from
China's northwest and must travel long distances to the plants, adding greatly
to its cost.

The researchers gathered their own data instead of relying on Chinese government
statistics, which can be unreliable. This may not sound like a big deal, but
even large international organizations often, or even primarily, depend on
government numbers.

"The kinds of technology currently being adopted in China are not cheap," lead
researcher Edward S. Steinfeld said in the statement. "They're not buying junk,
and in some cases, the plants are employing state-of-the-art technology."

There could be room for improvement in technology, however. A pilot power plant
capable of using carbon-capture technology opened in China in July, and
widespread efforts on energy continue. But this MIT report underlines the
challenge of cleaning up power generation when the fuel is dirtier than usual.

The full report is available in PDF. Formerly a journalist and consultant in
Beijing, Graham Webster is a graduate student studying East Asia at Harvard
University. At Sinobyte, he follows the effects of technology on Chinese
politics, the environment, and global affairs. He is a member of the CNET Blog
Network, and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.


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