The future of coal: Environmental relations discussed at Pitt

By Dale Shoemaker / Staff Writer

In 2006, China built two coal-fired power plants every week. In 2013, China built not even one coal-fired power plant per week.

Although it produces and consumes half of the world’s coal,  China, because of pressure from its citizens and the international community, has recognized the need to seek out more sustainable sources of energy.

Ailun Yang, senior associate at the World Resources Institute, spoke about this at the eighth annual China Town Hall: Local Connections, National Reflections, on Thursday at Pitt. The seminar included a live, nationally broadcast webcast by former President Jimmy Carter. 

Carter, known for his key role in establishing peaceful relations between the United States and China during his time in office, answered questions sent in via Twitter users. 

“I have urged China and the United States to form an alliance,” Carter said during the webcast. “The two greatest polluters on earth are China and the United States. If we can come out with a common approach to curbing carbon emissions, other countries will follow suit.”

Yang’s talk, titled “Coal and Sustainability in China,” followed the 31st annual Pittsburgh Coal Conference, hosted by Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, earlier this month. Coal has played a significant role in the development of cities in both the United States and China. Yang’s talk highlighted the importance of finding a place for coal alongside more sustainable forms of energy, such as hydro and wind power. 

Katherine Carlitz, assistant director of academic affairs at the Asian Studies Center, organized the event and said the goal was to educate the Pitt community on energy efficiency issues.

Similar Town Hall meetings occurred in 73 other cities in the U.S. the same night as part of an effort by The National Committee on United States-China Relations and the Carter Center, Carter’s nongovernmental nonprofit, to promote national discussion the issue.

 Yang began her talk with a recap of China’s current energy usage.

Sixty-six percent of China’s total energy comes from coal, she said, and only 8.4 percent comes from renewable sources, such as oil, nuclear power and natural gas. Nuclear power and natural gas require substantial amounts of water and are often not available because of a lack of water in some provinces and water pollution in others.

Air pollution in China has gotten so bad, Yang said, that the Chinese government has had no other option than to make efforts toward using sustainable energy.

U.S. ambassadors in Beijing tested the degree of the air pollution in 2008 by placing a PM2.5 meter, a device that measures fine particles in the air, outside of the embassy, Yang said. The meter produced negative readings, and through an app called Real-time PM2.5 Air Quality Index, Chinese citizens were able to access information on the level of air pollution at any time.

“In Beijing,” Yang said, “sometimes … you can’t even see the building in front of you. This [realization has occurred] within one generation … they realized we have cars and houses but no clean air.”

In response to overwhelming discontent from the public, the Chinese government launched a campaign against air pollution that addressed public health, provided transparent data, like the daily degree of air pollution, and encouraged corporations to reduce their use of coal.

Roughly 25 Pitt students and community members concerned with reducing pollution efforts in China and the United States attended. 

“This is going to be a huge issue, the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world, and China is taking a more assertive role,” Stephen Wludarski, a history and political science major, said. “It’s important for students to learn about this.”

Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, hosted the webcast during which Carter answered question about U.S.-China relations.

Both Carter and Orlins agreed that good relations between the U.S. and China are essential for environmental progress.

“Getting that relationship right is the key to peace and stability,” Orlins said during the webcast.