China’s Air Pollution Heads West

China’s plan for cleaning up the dirty air in Beijing means power plants are being built in the west in an area populated by ethnic minorities.

Published March 7, 2014

China’s 20 Most
Polluted Cities

Heavy coal use in eastern China contributes to an acrid smog that frequently envelops cities in what some residents have dubbed the “airpocalypse.” Pollution levels have hit record highs in recent years in cities like Beijing and Shanghai and result in as many as half a million premature deaths each year, according to an article in the Lancet, a leading medical journal.

Exposure to fine particulate matter in the air (also known as PM2.5) should be limited to an average of 10 µg/m³ per year, according to the World Health Organization. Levels are as much as 15 times higher in the 20 most polluted Chinese cities.

1 – The map shows the average annual concentration of fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less.

Map sources: Greenpeace East Asia based on Ministry of Environmental Protection and local Environmental Protection Bureau data, World Health Organization, Environmental Protection Agency, Tokyo Metropolitan Research Institute for Environmental Protection, King’s College London

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Xinjiang’s Coal-Fired Future

China is shifting construction of new coal-fired power plants to its western-most province, Xinjiang, where it plans to double coal-fired power generation by 2019. To achieve this goal it has already started building plants that will produce 20.6 gigawatts of power annually and it plans to add another 28.3 gigawatts of capacity.

To transmit the electricity from coal-fired plants to the east, China is investing half a trillion dollars to build the world’s largest ultra-high voltage network.

Map sources: IHS Inc., State Grid Corp of China, National Development and Reform Commission

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Power Solution
in the Pipeline

China also plans to clean up the air in Beijing and Shanghai by using a version of the technology that enabled the first public gas street lamps on London’s Westminster Bridge in 1813. Plants in Xinjiang and four other provinces will convert coal to synthetic natural gas and pump it to eastern cities through existing gas pipelines. About 85 percent of the emissions are generated at the plant during the conversion process and only 15 percent at the point the gas is burned.

Map sources: Lex Berman at the Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University, Tsinghua University Dept. of Thermal Engineering

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Minorities Braced for Rising Pollution

By moving power plants westward, China is shifting pollution away from the more-crowded eastern cities and into more sparsely populated provinces with higher concentrations of ethnic minorities. About 92 percent of China’s population is classified as Han and most live in the east.

Close to half of the people living in Xinjiang are Uighurs, a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority.

Map source: China’s National Bureau of Statistics

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GRAPHIC: CHLOE WHITEAKER & ALEX TRIBOU / BLOOMBERG VISUAL DATA