Stiven Frauzel
All posts from Stiven Frauzel
Stiven Frauzel in Environment,

Data Flaws in China Cities With Worst Air Risk Xi Pledge

Photographer: Henry Sanderson/Bloomberg

China’s efforts to name and shame its filthiest power stations and impose tough new emission standards are the leading weapons in President Xi Jinping’s war on pollution. The world shouldn’t hold its breath waiting for him to declare victory.

A coal-fired power plant in the center of China’s most polluted city appeared to shut down on June 30 when it stopped releasing its emissions data online a day before new standards came in. Yet a large LCD screen outside the facility in Xingtai, 360 kilometers (221 miles) south of Beijing, shows the plant is still partly operating. It was spewing out fumes at almost three times the legal limit two days after the rules were introduced, according to a reading displayed on the screen.

Flaws are evident in the data across China, with less than half the polluters in some provinces complying with a July 2013 edict from the Ministry of Environmental Protection to publish emissions data online, according to the ministry’s own study. Numbers that are released also are often incomplete or show many plants continue to emit pollutants well above the maximum levels permitted, according to an examination of the data by Bloomberg News.

“We have good standards but it’s always about implementation, what happens in the real world,” Huang Wei, a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace in Beijing, said. China’s environment authorities at the local level “have very little power to eliminate these little plants.”

Photographer: Henry Sanderson/Bloomberg

A power plant stands in the city of Xingtai, the most polluted city in China.

Air Quality

The problems evident in Xingtai, where average air quality has been the worst in China for the past year, shows how difficult it will be for Xi to honor his promise to the world that the country will clean up its fossil fuel industry. China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, fueling global warming that the United Nations has warned may cause irreversible and widespread damage to the planet, affecting people’s lives from Seattle to Sydney.

On the positive side, the Hebei Xingtai Power Generation Ltd. plant where the LCD screen shows operations, has closed two of its boilers, according to July 3 interviews with workers outside the company’s gates.

The plant’s two remaining operational boilers have been equipped with equipment to filter nitrogen oxide so should meet the new standards, Li Hongxin, the plant’s manager for external communications said.

The filters work through a process known as selective catalytic reduction that converts NOx -- gases that can cause respiratory diseases -- to less harmful chemicals. On a visit almost two months later, the screen showed another boiler at the plant was in operation, releasing emissions within the limit for nitrogen oxide.

Emissions Cap

“We’re doing a lot to meet the environmental standard,” Li said. “Without us, the sky would be even darker.”

She declined to comment on why the firm’s monitoring data was no longer released on the environment ministry’s website. Xingtai city’s environment bureau didn’t respond to calls from Bloomberg News.

China said in June it was working on how to cap its emissions for the first time, as talks under theUnited Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change try to seal a post-2020 deal that applies to all. China has pledged to cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by as much as 45 percent from 2005 levels before 2020.

Energy Demand

The goal is made harder by China’s reliance on coal -- it already consumes about half of the world’s supply and must meet power needs that will double by 2030, according to estimates from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. To tackle air that kills as many as half a million Chinese a year, China has ordered power companies nationwide to install equipment that would bring harmful emissions down to a level similar to requirements in Europe and the U.S.

In the case of nitrogen oxide, equipment is needed on as much as 800 gigawatts of power plant capacity, or two-thirds of China’s total, according to Xizhou Zhou, Director of China Energy at IHS Inc. (IHS), an Englewood, Colorado-based consulting company.

“That itself is a huge undertaking that the world has never seen before, particularly with such a tight schedule,” Zhou said. “When they announced the new rules two years ago and set a deadline for this year, we were very clear they were going to need more time. And there are all kinds of irregularities with enforcement that we’ve seen.”

Hourly Data

A two-and-a-half-year grace period before the new emissions standards were introduced July 1 was supposed to give companies sufficient time to adapt, yet data released by power producers in Hebei on Aug. 29 showed 13 of 36 plants exceeded NOx limits, with one plant emitting 800 times the maximum of 100 milligrams per cubic meter and another reading 123,815 milligrams per cubic meter.

While some large plants show hourly data for emissions of NOx and sulfur dioxide, or SO2, at each boiler, in many cases monitoring points don’t give out any data, or report emissions as zero, according to the data on the website of the environmental bureau in Hebei, home to the six most polluted cities in China. Users can’t access historical data for any power plant.

The release of real-time data to the public is at least a sign of progress, according to Ma Jun, a Beijing-based founder of the non-profit group the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. Ma set up a mobile phone app for the public to better access the data and flag violators.

They can share the data on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, and other social media platforms. Every hour there are about 300 to 400 emitters who don’t comply with the standards in the provinces that release data, he said.

Gaps in Quality

“There are some gaps in the quality of the data but I continue to believe that it’s better to expose all this to public scrutiny,” Ma said in an interview. “Without public scrutiny there is greater opportunity for manipulation.”

In April, China passed new laws that become effective from Jan. 1 that allow for consecutive daily fines on polluters if they don’t improve.

Data shared by residents on Weibo in June showed a state-owned power plant in Linyi city, 500 kilometers southeast of Xingtai, was regularly over the limits, prodding the city’s environment bureau into action. It investigated and ordered the operator to bring forward plans to install new equipment, according to a notice on the bureau’s official Weibo account.

Manipulating Data

While China is moving its power plants out to more remote western parts of the country and building a series of ultra-high voltage lines to bring the electricity back east, it still needs power closer to the major metropolises where most people live. The municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin, together with Hebei and Shandong provinces, consume the same amount of coal as the whole of Europe, according to Greenpeace.

Such a high political priority is placed by China’s leaders on reducing pollution that it’s becoming harder for power producers to ignore or fudge the new standards, IHS’s Zhou said. President Xi in June called for an “energy production and consumption revolution,” to reduce emissions from coal plants.

Companies have become more sophisticated in manipulating data from monitoring equipment, Zou Shoumin, the head of the Ministry of Environment’s monitoring division, said in August, according to state-owned China Radio International. The ministry released a report stating the system wasn’t effective in curbing emissions because real-time data wasn’t good enough. The ministry vowed to “harshly punish” anyone who fabricated data.

Costly Equipment

Part of the problem is cost. Power operators receive a subsidy of 8 yuan ($1.3) a megawatt-hour for fitting equipment to control emissions of NOx versus the actual cost of 12 yuan to 15 yuan, according to the China Electricity Council.

“It’s very expensive,” said Wang Ping, who is in charge of equipment at a power plant in Hebei’s Shijiazhuang city. He drove up to see the emissions-control equipment at Hebei Xingtai Power Generation’s new plant before purchasing his own.

Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, is under pressure to reduce air pollution and has set itself a target to “basically end serious pollution days” by 2022, according to the official Hebei Daily. Shuttered power plants and steel factories that dot Xingtai are testimony to the province’s efforts to cut coal production by 40 million tons by 2017 from 2012.

The downside is slowing provincial economic growth, with Hebei’s pace of expansion falling to 5.8 percent in the first half of 2014, down from 8.7 percent a year earlier. That was the second-lowest growth of all Chinese provinces.

Health Risk

“You have to meet the country’s standards,” said a 52-year-old worker at Hebei Xingtai Power Generation’s plant, who would only give his surname, Wang. The worker said his job was moving to the company’s new facility on the city’s outskirts, an hour’s bus ride away, where a red and white chimney continuously billows smoke.

In a city where air quality is about 20 times worse than New York, measured by PM 2.5 small particulates that the World Health Organization says poses the greatest risk to human health, even small victories are celebrated. Xingtai’s environment bureau called a special meeting after the city was no longer ranked the most polluted city in China for the month of July, according to a statement on the bureau’s website.

Xingtai, which had been on top of the pollution list every month from January to June, was now the second-most polluted, behind Hebei’s Tangshan. At the meeting, cadres were told to “overcome excessive pride and excitement” and to work more to ensure Xingtai stays off the top of the list.

The cadres were given a new goal: to become China’s third most polluted city.