For nearly a century, the Shijingshan coal-fired power plant loomed large over western Beijing. Huge plumes of polluting emissions and steam from the plant dominated the skylinewhile the din from its boilers and generators became the soundtrack to daily life in the neighbourhood.

That all came to an end on March 19, 2015, when the historic plant – said to be the cradle of China’s power industry – was shut for good. A day later, the 66-year-old Guohua Beijing coal-fired power plant in the heart of the central business district was also closed.

The last of Beijing’s major coal-powered stations will close in 2016, with four natural gas-fired plants replacing them as part of the city’s transition to cleaner energy. The new gas power stations can supply 2.6 times more electricity, according to the Beijing city authority, and help tackle the city’s serious air pollution.

But clearing the skies over China’s capital city, with its vast population, will be a slow process. No one is expecting dramatic improvements, for now.

“On a psychological level, I feel better now that I don’t see any smoke coming from the plant,” says one resident who has lived near the Shijingshan station for nine years. “But I can’t say there’s any immediate improvement in the air quality.”

War on pollution

Beijing’s struggle with deadly air pollution is a complex one. The problem is linked not just to the city’s own pace of economic development and urbanisation – the number of vehicles in Beijing soared from 1.57 million in 2003 to about 5.6 million by the end of 2014 – but also to rapid growth in neighbouring Tianjin and Hebei provinces.

Pollution from their cities drifts into Beijing. Sandstorms originating from the Gobi desert in Inner Mongolia also frequently invade the city’s air. Making matters worse, the Chinese capital sits on a plain and is surrounded on three sides by mountains that can trap pollutants for days.

At its worst, the amount of hazardous particulate matter in the air in several Chinese cities has been measured at more than 20 times the safety limits laid down by the World Health Organization. But China is not alone in suffering from heavily polluted air. Some 7 million people globally died from air pollution in 2012, according to the WHO.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has declared a war on pollution. The government is reducing coal consumption, which accounts for two-thirds of China’s energy use, and stepping up the use of cleaner sources of energy, including natural gas and renewables such as solar and wind. For example, China aims to increase the share of natural gas in its total energy consumption from 4% in 2011 to about 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020.

To curb worsening pollution from vehicles, the Chinese government plans to toughen environmental standards for fuels, promote the use of more fuel-efficient cars, and ban older cars and trucks.

Shell is working with partners in China to help the country meet its demand for cleaner energy. With PetroChina, for example, we are developing natural gas resources at the Changbei field in the north west of the country. We are a major supplier of liquefied natural gas, and have helped bring cleaner power to Chinese cities.

Sustainable transition?

These are early days in China’s efforts to clean up its air, but there are encouraging signs. For instance, China’s coal consumption, which accounts for about half of the global total, fell in 2014 for the first time in 14 years.

New reports also suggest that the rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from China is slowing.The International Energy Agency has cited the changing energy picture in China, the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, for its part in helping to stall growth of global carbon emissions last year – the first time in 40 years this had happened without a major economic downturn.

And the London School of Economics, in a study, has predicted that China is on track for a peak in its CO2 emissions by 2025, around five years earlier than expected.

“Energy transition anywhere in the world is a long process,” says Dr Philip Andrews-Speed, an expert on China’s energy sector with the Energy Studies Institute in Singapore. “There’s no doubt China is undergoing such a transition, but it has a long way to go.”

Beijing residents living in the shadow of the coal-fired power plants say they appreciate any improvements to the quality of air they breathe.

“I bring my son to the playground whenever we get a clear day,” says a young mother who has lived near the Guohua Beijing coal-fired plant for five years. “That’s how we make the most of good air days.”

Story by Chua Chin Hon

In June 2015, the IEA published a report on energy and climate change ahead of the UN climate conference in Paris in December 2015, which includes an analysis of the power sector in China. Read the report on the IEA website.

Learning from cities around the world

Beijing has seen a phenomenal growth spurt in recent decades. Its population, for instance, has doubled in the last 25 years from 10.8 million in 1990 to 21.5 million at the end of 2014.

This has significantly increased the stress on the city’s energy supplies and quality of life – challenges which many major cities around the world are grappling with.

Research into around 500 cities, sponsored by Shell together with The Centre For Liveable Cities in Singapore, has identified many common lessons that cities can draw upon in their quest for greater energy efficiency and liveability. Read about the research findings in the Shell scenarios supplement New Lenses on Future Cities.

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