China Adds to Energy Waste

China's overloaded trucks and railways are adding to energy consumption, pollution and waste, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-09-17
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BOSTON--China is wasting vast amounts of energy on transporting coal, analysts say. The inefficiency is causing China to use more diesel fuel, adding to energy shortages, pollution and costs.

The country's environmental problems from relying on high- polluting coal are now well-known. China burns over 2.5 billion tons of coal per year, more than twice as much as any other country in the world. Coal accounts for over 70 percent of China's energy consumption, according to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), while coal production has nearly doubled since 2002.

But moving all that coal is also a problem because China's railways handled only 1.5 billion tons of coal last year, or 1 billion tons less than the country produced, the official China Daily reported last week. That means that huge volumes of coal had to travel by truck, although rail is at least three times more fuel-efficient, according to U.S. Department of Transportation estimates.

Some 200 million tons of coal per year are transported long distances by truck from producing provinces like Shanxi to ports in the north and east, the Reuters news agency reported in April, citing the NDRC's Institute of Comprehensive Transportation. That amount is equal to all the coal produced by Germany, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Other estimates of the problem are far worse. In a Radio Free Asia interview, David Fridley, deputy leader of the China Energy Group at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said trucks are hauling as much as 400 million tons of coal per year over China's roads.

In China, trucks actually use 10 to 16 times more energy than railroads to move each ton over the same distance because so many of the trucks are overloaded and worn out, Fridley said. He estimates that China is consuming an extra 50,000 to 100,000 barrels (8 to 16 million liters) of diesel fuel per day because of coal transport by truck.

System 'overloaded'

In other interviews, experts agreed that as China's energy consumption keeps growing, the overloaded transport system has become a major cause of energy waste.

"A sizeable chunk of energy demand is simply moving other energy around," said Mikkal Herberg, research director for energy security at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research. "It's adding to this whole burden on the energy supply system, which is increasingly at the margin of crisis all the time."

Herberg said China has multiplied the environmental damage from burning coal by moving more of it in trucks.

"You're just doubling down your pollution impact," Herberg said. "It feeds on itself. You're creating more pollution at both ends of the spectrum."

The trouble for coal is also true for all cargo. China's Ministry of Railways says it can only serve 40 percent of China's freight demand now, The Economist news magazine reported.

As coal production overwhelms the railroads, other heavy products like steel and cement are also being pushed onto the roads, said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee.

"They'll move by truck or not move," Andrews-Speed said. "The question is to what extent does the shortage of railway capacity actually provide a constraint on the whole economic system."

The transport problem surfaced repeatedly this year during power shortages and crises like last winter's storms, when coal stockpiles at power plants ran dangerously low.

"They simply cannot get the coal to the power stations, and the transport system is the key to that," Andrews-Speed said.

The trouble was also evident during the Olympics, when government officials pushed miners to produce more coal for power plants, but supplies continued to run low.

"You can't get it to where it needs to go," said Herberg. "The whole energy system is like a series of bottlenecks that are getting tighter, more constraining and more crisis prone."


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