China's “Blackest Day” Is Still In The Future

Wolf Richter's picture

Wolf Richter

China has tried over the years to come to grips with its pandemic pollution, yet in Beijing, through a combination of factors, it reached catastrophic levels in mid-January and set another record. Result of the white-hot pace of economic growth. And of coal consumption.

The “Blackest Day,” is how The Economist called January 12 when the Air Quality Index (AQI) reached 755. It was “Beyond index” on a scale where the worst level, “Hazardous,” ranges from 301-500 and carries this warning: “Everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors; people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should remain indoors and keep activity levels low.”

On that day, airborne particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM 2.5) reached 886 micrograms per cubic meter, about 35 times the guideline set by the World Health Organization. These particulates contain “sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, carbon, mineral dust, and water” that form a “complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances.” They contribute to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and lung cancer. Mortality in polluted cities exceeds that “in relatively cleaner cities by 15–20%.” The WHO estimated in 2007 that 656,000 Chinese died of air pollution every year, and another 95,600 from water pollution. Surely, this hasn’t gotten any better since.

Among the culprits: coal consumption. It has been on an uninterrupted tear since 2000 as China built a phenomenal number of coal-fired power plants (users of steam coal) and as it expanded its steel and iron industries (users of metallurgical coal). Bubble projects, overcapacity, construction of ghost cities, motor vehicles that turn the exploding net of roads and highways into clogged parking lots.... The excesses are everywhere. And power generating capacity from 2005-2011 doubled, of which 80%—despite efforts to diversify—still comes from coal.

China consumed 1.5 billion tons of coal in 2000, or 28% of total world consumption. By 2011, according to a just released report by the US Energy Information Agency, coal consumption had jumped 153% to 3.8 billion tons, amounting to 47% of total coal consumption in the world. Demand had increased an average of 9% per year! If the China bubble doesn’t accidentally get pricked in the interim, the country will consume more coal in 2013 than the rest of the world combined.

In that “rest of the world,” however, coal consumption has had a hard time, increasing only 1% on average per year over the 12-year period. Fingers are pointing at the US, once the largest coal market, until China came along. Much of the coal-consuming iron and steel industries in the US have migrated across the Pacific, and coal as a fuel for power generation has been on a long structural decline [read... Natural Gas And The Brutal Dethroning of King Coal].

The numbers are epic. China has more power generating capacity than any other country. In addition to being by far the largest consumer of coal, China is also the largest producer and has the third-largest coal reserves. Despite these superlatives, it was only the fourth-largest consumer of natural gas in 2011, though consumption jumped 50% from 2009. Nuclear power, with 15 reactors on line as of mid-2012, provides only a tiny portion of total power generation, but 26 (!) reactors are under construction [here is my article about its sideshow: Blowing Up: The Transfer Of French Nuclear Technology To China]. And renewables? Minuscule. But growing in leaps and bounds, of course.

As these alternatives are desperately trying to gain critical mass, coal consumption will continue to grow—and the pollution record of January 12, as horrid as it was, will turn out to be just another line item on a long list of surpassed records. The “Blackest Day” is still in the future.

While we on the West Coast get to breathe the airborne crap that makes it across the Pacific, there are opportunities for the US in China’s coal-fired bubble economy: coal exports. In 2012, the US exported an estimated 125 million tons of coal. It broke the prior record set in 1981 and was more than double the level of 2009. However, coal production in the US still declined. It’s tough out there.

Despite the frenetic growth in coal consumption in China and certain other parts of Asia, the US exported much more coal to ... Europe! Coal has been very competitive in Europe where natural-gas prices are so high that land-locked producers in the US get water in their eyes when they think about it. In countries like Germany and Belgium that were once coal mining bastions, coal production (and consumption) has been in free-fall. So US producers were able to export 42 million tons to Europe. To Asia, they shipped only 23 million tons—but this too is on the upswing. Even, if in a few years, people in Beijing are trying to figure out how to breathe the air outside.

To supply its bubble economy with raw materials and fossil fuels, regardless of the consequences, China has embarked on an all-out resource grab, in every direction. Its tentacles spread far and wide. Oil is on top of the list. Hence the moves in Iraq, where turmoil has created opportunities. Read.... It Wasn’t Supposed To Be This Way: Chinese Oil Companies Apparent Victors in Post-Saddam Iraq.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
strangewalk's picture

There is only one solution to this and many other problems ushering in a fast approaching global Armageddon--depopulation on a massive scale. Human society has to be destroyed in order to save it. Nuclear war is too messy. Food shortages take too long and could lead to unpredictable outcomes.The answer is a fast-spreading, quick acting, 100% fatal genetically modified pathogen for which a vaccine is at the ready, but only for some. Remember that next time you're called in for a flu shot. 

Ratscam's picture

250'000 net new souls populate this planet on a daily basis.
Can we handle this growth? Yes. Do TPTB want this? No.

THE DORK OF CORK's picture

The great question is who gets to eat the Australian  steam & coking coal if the Asia / Europe , American trade implodes............


Europe should be building coastal coal plants NOW.


The UK is already at capacity with its 1970s era coal plants working 24 /7


BeetleBailey's picture

yet...they....along with garbage burning India, remains OUT of any Global Douchebag ...."accord".....


Indeed...we'll whip this issue.....<sarc>

Sudden Debt's picture

Maybe they should ban gunownership to solve the problem?

Seems to be working in the US for a lot of problems....

akak's picture

My big worry here is, with all this toxic smog, how are all the restaurants in Beijing going to find enough pigeons to keep their General Tso's 'chicken' on the menu?

Sudden Debt's picture


Fish? nop, Cat.

Porkchop? nop, Cat.

Rabbit? nop, Cat.

Dogmeat? well yeah... most likely it will be dogmeat...

Rat? also very probably...


The Chinese kitchen is very diverse. If it has legs or eyes... they'll eat it. Everything else? They'll also eat it...


JuicedGamma's picture

If you show up with those waving arms they'll no doubt eat you as well.

Peter Pan's picture

The real question is whether the pollution is bad enough to make the use of drones useless.

dunce's picture

26 new nukes will use a lot of uranium. I am sure these are all large plants. The plants being shut down are older smaller plants around the world so the total power generated should take a big jump. I have not seen any projections of fuel use and production, but it seems that the price of yellow cake is going to climb. Another precious metal?

akak's picture


China consumed 1.5 billion tons of coal in 2000, or 28% of total world consumption. By 2011, according to a just released report by the US Energy Information Agency, coal consumption had jumped 153% to 3.8 billion tons, amounting to 47% of total coal consumption in the world. Demand had increased an average of 9% per year! If the China bubble doesn’t accidentally get pricked in the interim, the country will consume more coal in 2013 than the rest of the world combined.

But, but, but, according to our dear Chinese dishwashing friend AnAnonymous, of dog-wokking, US 'american' citizenism fame, only 'americans' consume resources, right?  These figures must be pure offuscationalizing, can-kicking, forcing blame to the exterior, 'american' monolizing of the speeching means, if they impune China as a polluter or consumer in any way.

AnAnonymous, please inform us how this is all incorrect, and is surely all the fault of your favorite strawman, that evil and ubiquitous US 'american' citizenism of fabled AnAnonymousitizenism.

Notarocketscientist's picture

It is so kind of the Chinese to lay down their lives for us ingesting toxins derived from the products that they make for us on the cheap (because they have no environmental controls whatsoever).

God bless you China - we appreciate your tremendous sacrifice!

onthesquare's picture

measurement of Hg around cement plants in north america are very high due to the coke (sister to coal) used in the firing process.  It gets in the fish, air, water and, in the end, the humans become full of it.  Snot good.

Of course china's contamination of everything is regulated by exporting shit to the rest of the world.  Cook ware made from chinese raw materials?  In general what ever the chinese touch is contaminated and we end up using it until its finish falls off or it begins to leak and that point of failure is due to use and the disappearing of something accidentally added during the manufacturing process.  

The question is where did it go?

(you ate it)

jonjon831983's picture

So... is this why China's energy consumption has been spiking and analysts have declared victory?  Making smog?


I read in an article (was it on ZH?) that Beijing's problems is because there are coal plants within the giant city of Beijing and that the geography doesnot allow for wind to blow it out of the way.


Maybe they need to spend more money on smokestack scrubbers.  That'll help...



Conveniently, Chinese new year holiday will be next month... so prepare for Large explained drop in energy consumption.

onthesquare's picture

"Beijing's problem"??????????

We are talking about people breathing "Beijing problem" STF

China is an industrial revolution on steroids.  The rest of the world should look at everything they purchase with a critical eye as it was made at the expense of peoples health and the planets health.

Bottom line is stop consumming.  Repair it, stop needing it, recycle it, make it yourself, etc.  

Stop buying stuff.

joego1's picture

I get the feeling that they will eventually reap the reward.

The Heart's picture

Reward? Americas heartland?

Oh, after the collapse...ahh ha.

Swiss-based BIS warns of another 2008-style credit bubble about to burst: