The economic benefits of reducing pollution from China’s power plants will far outweigh the costs, according to a study by U.S. and Chinese environmental agencies.
The joint report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) suggests China can gain from pollution-reduction programs being tested in the United States, though China’s pollution problems from coal-burning are more serious.
Efforts at U.S. power plants are expected to yield economic benefits of up to U.S. $122 billion (915 billion yuan) per year from annual investments of U.S. $4.4 billion in pollution-control measures, the joint research group said.
The agencies estimate that the annual cost to China of installing and running smokestack desulfurization equipment, called “scrubbers,” would come to U.S. $950 million (7.15 billion yuan). But the benefits in health, higher crop yields, and reduced damage to buildings would total U.S. $4.7 billion.
The cost-benefit ratio is greater in the United States because of higher health care expenses, the measurement of lost work days, and other factors, the study said.
Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said the study, released in December, puts environmental investment in economic terms that could help China’s government justify pollution-control programs.
“It’s showing Chinese policymakers that this is a wise investment,” Turner said. “If you have a healthy population, they’re able to work, there’s a healthy economy. If you’re not losing crops, that’s also good for the economy.”
Lessons learned in reducing pollution from sulfur dioxide (SO2) may also prove valuable in reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that contribute to global warming, said Turner.
“The scrubbers and the different kinds of equipment—not only putting in the technology but the political means for pushing the enforcement—are the same tools that you’re going to need to lower CO2 emissions.”
“So, it’s moving in the right direction,” Turner said.
Turner described the joint study as a benefit resulting from the two countries’ cooperation under the U.S./China Strategic Economic Dialogue.
Daniella Salaverry, co-director of the China program at Pacific Environment, a California-based nongovernmental organization, agreed that the message on costs and benefits is now getting through to Beijing.
“I think that the current Chinese leadership has made it clear that they’re really committed to working in this international framework to improve their environmental record, both domestically in terms of air quality within China but also when you look at these global issues like climate change.”
Public and international pressure has contributed to the central government’s new willingness to support pollution-reduction programs, Salaverry said.
The joint report noted that China’s previous efforts to promote the use of scrubbers faced challenges when some of the power stations that installed the devices did not turn them on, in order to cut costs.
Under a new plan, power plants would be barred from charging higher rates unless the scrubbers are kept on. They would also face fines if the equipment is used less than 90 percent of the time.
Salaverry said the new rules are a sign that China’s government sees the importance of closing loopholes for polluters. But a challenge remains “in implementation and accountability between the local governments’ environmental protection bureaus and SEPA to make sure that those scrubbers and sulfur dioxide inhibitors are turned on during production.”
“From Beijing, they are really thinking ahead in terms of environmental legislation. But the problem remains at the local level.”
Original reporting by Michael Lelyveld. Edited for the Web by Richard Finney.