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Just a decade ago, China’s consumption of coal was marginally higher than America’s consumption. However, at the moment, China’s consumption is thrice as much. This simply means that the country is over-consuming coal. This overconsumption has serious environmental consequences that have led to global warming and death of animals and plants. Therefore, the country has to find other means of generating power. Solar, wind and nuclear power can reduce this over reliance.
Overconsumption Issues in China
Overconsumption or excessive consumption can be defined as the situation, whereby the use of resources (per capita consumption) is so high such that sustainability cannot be achieved. Although resources have to be consumed, this consumption should be such that the resources can be replenished or can last for a considerably long time. Overconsumption, on the other hand, simply implies that the resources are used disproportionately such that they cannot be replenished or sustained over time. The end result is that the over consumed resource will be depleted in a relatively short time than if the consumption was regulated at an acceptable level. This paper analyses China’s overconsumption of coal in the recent past. It also discusses the consequences of this excessive consumption. It will later offer possible solutions that the country can adopt to counter this overconsumption.
Overconsumption of Coal in China
China is not only the largest producer of coal in the world but also the largest consumer. Over the past decade, the consumption levels of coal in the country have reached alarming levels. This is underlined by the fact that the country depends on coal for 80% of its energy needs (China Daily 2011). In 2011, China’s National Development and Reform Commission reported that the country’s coal consumption grew by about 10%. This was the biggest ever annual increase since 2005 (Lacey 2012). In only nine months last year, coal consumption had reached more than 2.28 billion metric tons. In that same time, the world’s most populous nation had recorded more than one hundred and ten million metric tons net coal imports. In addition, the net imports in September had risen by about 25% when compared to the previous year’s figure (RTT News 2011).
While the country is importing coal in more than a hundred of million metric tons, it is only exporting about 10-12 million metric tons. This simply means that China is primarily a coal importing country. However, with such a high level of consumption, this puts a lot of pressure on the state to invest huge sums of money in importing more and more coal. Therefore, a lot of funds that could have been used in developmental projects are channeled towards the importation of coal. In the long term, such spending cannot be sustained. Some important projects may be neglected just to finance the importation of coal.
To put into perspective how China is consuming coal excessively, it is proper to compare its consumption rate with other nations. Former Soviet Union consumed 0.6 billion metric tons of coal in 2010, while the rest of Europe consumed about 0.7 billion metric tons. North America, Africa, Central and Southern America and the Oceania region spent 1.2, 0.3, 0.1 and 0.5 billion metric tons respectively. Other Asian countries consumed about 1.14 billion metric tons. All these regions cannot be compared with China that consumed 3.52 billion metric tons. In fact, the total consumption of coal in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Oceania is less than the consumption in China. This simply means that China has to be consuming this commodity excessively. India, a country that has a comparable population size to China, consumed 0.62 billion metric tons of coal, which is almost 3 billion metric tons less than China. All these indicate that China is overly consuming coal. However, with the consumption rising, the situation is bound to get worse (US EIA 2011).
China has the world’s third largest coal reserve, at 14%. Over the past decade, the country’s economy has been growing year in year out. The country’s annual industrial growth rate has been recorded at about 12%. This corresponds to the growth in coal consumption over the same period. 70% of the country’s electricity is generated by coal plants. China is without a doubt the world’s biggest coal consumer. It is believed that it accounts to about half of the total global coal consumption. Considering the fact that the country’s population makes about a sixth of the world, this rate is excessively high. China’s Energy Research Institute forecasts that the country’s energy consumption will increase by about 60% in the next ten years. This means that the excessive current consumption of oil will only be exacerbated. This level cannot be sustained in the long term. Other power generating techniques have to be established. Otherwise, the country’s coal reserve will be depleted faster than desired (Ebadi 2012).
Environmental Consequences of this Overconsumption
Burning a ton of coal can generate sufficient electricity to light about four hundred homes for a day. However, its environmental consequences are gross. For instance, it has been established that burning only one ton of coal can lead to the emission of about 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide. In addition, it can produce about 27 pounds of the toxic sulfur dioxide. Moreover, other chemical such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, lead, mercury and arsenic are also released to the atmosphere. Some of these chemicals are reputed to affect the Earth’s ozone layer (especially carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide). The release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is the major cause of global warming and, thus, climate change. Now let’s put this into perspective, if one ton of coal burnt can emit about 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide, what about 3.52 billion metric tons? This means that, with an excessive consumption rate, China is emitting billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. And with each passing year, the Earth’s ozone layer is being gradually damaged (Ebadi 2012). As a result, the Earth is experiencing tough climatic challenges that could be avoided if the carbon dioxide emission was regulated (Time for Change n.d.).
One city in China that has borne the brunt of coal overconsumption is Linfen, in Shanxi province. Linfen has more than four million inhabitants and has, perhaps, the biggest coal industry in the country and possibly the world. However, Linfen has the unenviable reputation of being the most polluted city in the whole world. The situation is so bad that even its inhabitants call it the ‘asthma capital’. There are people who have claimed that spending a day in this infamous city is akin to smoking about three packs of cigarettes. This means that the air pollution, as a result of excessive coal consumption, is very intense. This consumption simply has to be tamed if the residents of Linfen are to breathe fresh air (Ebadi 2012).
The Yellow River, one of China’s biggest rivers, has been affected by the pollution as a result of the coal overconsumption. In fact, the river has been labeled the “cradle of Chinese civilization”. While the Yellow River in the past boasted a large variety of fish species, about one third of them have now become extinct. This has been blamed on the country’s pollutant emissions from the excessive coal combustion. It should not be lost that the Yellow River passes through the infamous Linfen city (Ebadi 2012).
The emissions from coal combustion (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, arsenic, mercury) have direct effects on the Earth (atmosphere, and water included). For instance, the smog from the coal burning causes death to many plants without proper treatment. When this smog flows into water bodies, the aquatic plants and animals will eventually die. The sulfur dioxide, released to the atmosphere, can mix with rain, leading to the formation of acid rain. This rain has adverse effects on plants, water bodies, buildings and monuments. This rain can cause serious health issues, when drank by animals. Mercury is also detrimental to the health of animals. However, the mercury from the coal burning has always found its way into the water (Ebadi 2012).
It has also been established that the emissions lead to the formation of dirty snow. It has been argued that dirty snows cause about 25% of the global increase in temperature. This is because the dirty snow absorbs the sun’s rays, rather than reflecting them to the atmosphere (NASA 2003). Apart from just causing global warming, the dirty snow also causes the rapid melting of glaciers.
Possible Solutions to reduce this Overconsumption
China greatly depends on coal for its power generation. Over the past few years, the country has experienced an amazing industrial growth. This has simply increased its appetite for more energy to feed this vastly expanding industrial sector. However, this has led to over reliance on coal for power generation. As the paper has discussed, this over reliance has come with serious consequences not only to the country’s environment but also to the country’s citizens. At this rate of consumption, the Chinese core reserves will be depleted in 37 years (Heinberg 2010). Therefore, finding other alternative ways of generating power absolutely makes sense. This is because the current reliance on coal cannot be sustained in the long term. In addition, its effects on the health of the Chinese citizens are so detrimental that it cannot be ignored.
Rather than depending on coal, China can adopt solar power generation. Solar energy is absolutely free. Therefore, the country can harness it on a large scale to make it a viable power source. Additionally, the country has to find ways of generating power from wind energy. Again, just like solar energy, the main challenge is to harness this wind power to make it viable (National Geographic n.d.). Solar and wind power has the capacity to generate a sizable portion of the country’s electricity needs. The fact that these two have no effects on the environment and that they are free (thus, no importation costs) make them very good coal substitutes (Clean Solar Living n.d). China can also increase its nuclear power generation. These three alternative power sources have the capacity to give the country a sizable portion of the country’s power needs. Remember that these three cannot generate power at a similar capacity as coal. However, they are simply meant to reduce the over reliance on coal (Heinberg 2010).
If solar, wind and nuclear energy can produce even a quarter of the country’s electricity needs, the consumption of coal will be drastically reduced to a sustainable level. The overconsumption, not the consumption, is the biggest environmental challenge that China has to deal with. When the consumptions checked, the environmental consequences will also be reduced. With time, however, the role of solar, wind and nuclear energy should increase to eclipse that of coal. After all, the coal reserves may be depleted in less than four decades.
The role of coal in China’s industrial growth cannot be underestimated. However, this has led to overconsumption of the commodity such that the country faces a possible depletion in less than four decades. In addition, this overconsumption has brought about detrimental environmental consequences that are harmful to not only humans but also plants and animals. Therefore, alternative sources of energy have to be developed to reduce this overconsumption. Wind, solar and nuclear energy have the potential to augment coal energy, thereby reducing the over reliance of the country on coal.