Haunting Photos Show Source of Illegal Carbon Emissions in China

A coal-fired steel plant in Inner Mongolia has continued operations despite the central government's efforts to reduce the industry, sources say.

A Chinese steel plant in Inner Mongolia comes alive with fire and grit in new pictures by photojournalist Kevin Frayer, who reports that the plant is allegedly operating without authorization from China's central government.

Over the past few years, China has tried to retool its economy to reduce choking pollution and better position itself for the future, says Paul Joffe, who studies China's energy and environmental efforts at the World Resources Institute and who co-runs the website ChinaFAQs.org.

"The International Energy Agency says coal consumption likely peaked in China in 2013 and has since been dropping," says Joffe. "That’s pretty important."

Yet China has seen "a combination of challenges and progress," he says. The central government's latest plans call for stopping construction on some coal-fired power plants, increasing installation of renewable energy, and switching other industrial activities to cleaner power sources or phasing them out entirely in favor of more service-based businesses.

But there have been growing pains, in part because thousands of people work in coal-related businesses there and because far-flung plants have tended to align themselves more closely with local politicians than the central government. A recent report from the country's State Council noted that a number of China’s plants continued to use coal despite directives to phase out operations. In some cases, operators paid “fines” to local inspectors and/or politicians to keep up their activities.

In February China announced its intent to slash 500 million tonnes of coal production capacity and 100 million to 150 million tonnes of crude steel capacity over the next three to five years. The reasons are multifaceted, says Joffe. China has faced slowing economic growth, to about 7 percent of its gross domestic product, from a recent high of around 12 percent—so it has needed less energy and steel than previously expected. In fact, the country has overproduced those commodities to the point of depressing prices and causing a glut.

That has led to controversy around Donald Trump allegedly using cheap Chinese steel in his buildings, possibly at the expense of American workers. (Learn more about Trump and climate.)

The Chinese government also wants to improve air quality, which is exacerbated by burning coal and which has resulted in serious health problems in cities like Beijing. Awareness of climate change is also a factor, says Joffe, as is energy security.

“China is okay with slightly lower GDP growth if it is higher quality, in terms of health, environment, and new opportunities for jobs,” says Joffe. China is already a leader in renewable energy development and they want to accelerate that, believing it will pay off in the long term.“Their overarching belief is that the old economic model has run its course,” Joffe adds. “They know it’s not going to provide the same opportunities in the future as it did in the past.”

Still, the transition is ongoing and has not always been smooth, as Frayer’s photos suggest.

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