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China puts coal plants at full capacity, even as it touts hosting a 'green' Olympics

The Big Air Shougang venue in Beijing has drawn stares because of the large cooling towers at the site, which stands where a huge steel plant once operated. The steel plant was idled to help ease pollution — but China's reliance on coal for energy continues.
Manan Vatsyayana
/
AFP via Getty Images
The Big Air Shougang venue in Beijing has drawn stares because of the large cooling towers at the site, which stands where a huge steel plant once operated. The steel plant was idled to help ease pollution — but China's reliance on coal for energy continues.

Beijing Olympics organizers have repeatedly promised to host the greenest Games ever, aiming at carbon neutrality. But outside of the Olympics, things aren't so green: the central government pledged this week to run China's coal power plants at full capacity to meet energy demands.

"Coal supply will be increased and coal-fired power plants will be supported in running at full capacity and generating more electricity, so as to meet the electricity needs for production and residential consumption," according to China's state-run Xinhua news agency.

Earlier this month, Chinese officials called on coal producers to ensure a steady supply of coal — or face "further investigation and accountability measures."

China's ongoing reliance on coal is yet another reminder of the realities that exist outside of the Olympic bubble. Officials have touted their commitment to fulfilling the Olympics' goal of being more environmentally-friendly, with government-backed media outlets stating that "Beijing 2022 will be the greenest and cleanest Olympic Games ever." Beijing's diminutive Olympic cauldron was touted as a symbol of that commitment.

"It is the first time in the history of the Olympics all venues are 100 percent powered by green energy, with the ice-making technology adopted producing zero emissions," China Daily reported.

Coal isn't the only thing skeptics point to in undercutting China's claims of a greener-than-ever Olympics. For many viewers, TV images of the Big Air Shougang venue quickly threw the disparity into high, if symbolic, relief: the tall ramp was built on the site of a closed steelworks factory, making its massive cooling towers and smokestacks a striking backdrop to the snowy venue.

"The sprawling campus has been converted into a bizarre, yet beautiful, city oasis," according to an Associated Press report.

While acknowledging China's attempts to make Olympics construction and transportation projects more environmentally friendly, experts at Canada's Brock University said this week that the efforts amount to "greenwashing."

They cite problems such as the destruction of part of a natural reserve for a ski run, and the widespread use of artificial snow — Olympic events require around 49 million gallons of water to be mixed with chemicals, they said.

"Most people probably don't know that Beijing has had a water shortage for many years," said Liette Vasseur, a biology professor at Brock.

As the world's second-largest economy and its largest climate polluter, China is a key player in the international struggle to limit climate change, facing criticisms and calls for action. The country has pledged to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels; President Xi Jinping recently stressed the importance of hitting its climate targets.

But in the short term, China has increased its use of coal, hoping to thwart power shortages. And the country's path toward cleaner fuel sources has been complicated by the pandemic's economic fallout. As NPR's Emily Feng has reported, Chinese regulators have backed off on some requirements to help factories recover losses and respond to new surges in demand.

Last year, coal production in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region alone topped 1.06 billion tonnes, Xinhua reported. For 17 years running, the region has been China's biggest supplier of electricity, the news agency adds.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.