China's National Coal Cap Policy Could Save Nearly 50,000 Lives and $6.2 Billion Every Year by 2020

04/24/2015 05:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015
JOHANNES EISELE via Getty Images

China's proposed national policies to curb coal use will provide enormous air quality and health benefits to the public and coal industry workers, saving 49,000 lives and $6.2 billion in 2020, according to a new study (Chinese version here) released by the China Coal Cap Project, a joint initiative of academic, governmental and non-profit researchers, with the support of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

The study examines the public health impacts of a national coal cap policy that caps coal consumption in 2020 at 4.1 billion tons of coal, compared to a business-as-usual scenario in which China's annual coal consumption continues to grow to 4.8 billion tons of coal in 2030. The report estimates that air pollution from coal use led to approximately 708,000 premature deaths in China in 2012 due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), ischemic heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. The air quality improvements from a national coal cap policy would save approximately 49,000 lives per year in 2020, 89,000 in 2030, 80,000 in 2040 and 51,000 in 2050, leading to economic benefits of $6.2 billion, $11.4 billion, $10.2 billion and $6.5 billion respectively. The graph below shows the estimated premature deaths (in units of 10,000 persons) from ambient PM 2.5 air pollution attributable to coal through 2050, with the reference scenario in red and the coal cap scenario in green.

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Source: "Coal Consumption Cap and Public Health Impacts and Avoidable Costs" presentation

The study also analyzed the impacts of a coal cap policy on the occupational health and mortality of coal mining and production workers, finding that a national coal cap policy would prevent approximately 800-1,400 cases of lung disease among coal mining and production workers per year between 2020 to 2050 and approximately 180-260 premature deaths per year from 2030 to 2050. 24,206 cases of occupation-related pneumoconiosis disease were reported in 2012, with 55 percent of these occurring in the coal mining and production sector.

The coal cap health study builds on prior analysis by the China Coal Cap Project which finds that coal combustion and utilization was responsible for about 62 percent of particulate matter (PM 2.5), 93 percent of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and 70 percent of nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution in China in 2012. The China Coal Cap Project also previously found (Chinese report) the environmental and health costs from coal production, transportation and utilization amounted to 260 RMB ($43) per ton in 2012. In order to mitigate these environmental and health costs, the project recommends implementation of a national coal consumption cap target and policy in the next Five Year Plan, and the use of increasing resource, environmental and carbon taxes (Chinese report) to account for the environmental and health costs of coal.

China is already leading the way in global renewable energy investment, having invested $89.5 billion in wind, solar and other renewables in 2014. Increasing investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency can help it to achieve a permanent capping and reduction of its total coal consumption as early as possible, while adding hundreds of thousands of jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The recent 2050 high renewable energy penetration study led by the China National Renewable Energy Center charts a similar path (see below), in which aggressive wind and solar development can lead to a peaking of coal consumption by 2020 and carbon emissions by 2025, with renewables accounting for more than 60 percent of China's primary energy and 85 percent of its electricity by 2050.

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Source: 2050 High Renewable Energy Penetration Scenario and Roadmap Study, China National Renewable Energy Center

The health, economic and job benefits of capping coal consumption by greatly expanding renewable energy and energy efficiency are clear, and China is currently making strong efforts to speed up its clean energy transition. Setting an aggressive mandatory national coal cap target in the 13th Five Year Plan that comes out next March, and laying out a detailed policy roadmap for achieving it, will be important next steps in making these goals a reality.

This blog was coauthored by NRDC China Climate and Energy Project Director Alvin Lin.