From China’s smog-choked cities to its polluted water systems, the consequences of the country’s dependency on coal are clear to see. The country’s most pressing environmental problems — acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers, and the filthy layer of black dust that has settled on many villages — can all be traced back in varying degrees to this root cause.

A series of emissions regulations were passed earlier this year, but it seems that China’s biggest power players aren’t following the new rules. A new report from Greenpeace shows that China’s largest coal-fired power plant has been violating national emission standards for nitrogen oxides: chemicals that cause dangerous fine particulate matter pollution.  

smokestackThe Waigaoqiao coal-fired power plant located in Shanghai has been violating China’s national standards for nitrogen oxides every week since new standards came into force in July, according to an analysis of publicly available government data by researchers at Greenpeace East Asia. The data shows that phase two of the power plant, which has a capacity of 1,800MW, has been emitting nitrogen oxides in excess of emission standards used by the local environmental protection bureau 18 percent of the time.

While China has made progress in dealing with other components of air pollution including sulphur dioxide, it has only recently started to deal with the issue of nitrogen oxides. According to the EPA, nitrogen oxides react with ammonia, moisture and other compounds to form small particles. These small particles cause asthma, or worsen a range of respiratory diseases, potentially leading to increased hospitalizations and premature death.

For the 70 percent of China’s population living in regions where air pollution levels exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended limits, coal production is deadly. According to new research compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in 2012 alone, suffocating air pollution caused by coal burning was responsible for 670,000 premature deaths.

Last year, the WHO officially classified air pollution as a carcinogen. According to this study, living in the most heavily-polluted cities, like Beijing, increased people’s risk of developing lung cancer by an astonishing 10 to 15 percent.

The Waigaoqiao plant also happens to be widely recognized and praised as a highly energy efficient plant, the best in China and arguably in the world. According to a report from Siemens, “Since start-up in 2008, Waigaoqiao III has saved 900,000 metric tons of raw coal and reduced CO2 output by 1.9 million metric tons annually. The plant reaches efficiency levels of up to 46 percent, making it the most efficient coal plant in the world.”

However such an egregious violation of emissions standards highlights China’s ongoing struggle with environmental law enforcement, as well as the global challenges inherent to overcoming fossil fuel dependency. Furthermore, for China, the problem does not seem to be about eliminating coal usage but rather stretching its use as a resource as far as it will go.

“There appears to be little chance that China will ever be completely weaned off coal,” says Becky Davis of the NRDC.

In a 2010 interview with Xiao Yuhan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yuhan estimated that for at least another two decades China will be held to a coal-dependent economy. “Even if China utilizes every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It’s not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both,” he said. “We have to use coal, so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible.”

Coal currently makes up about 65 percent of China’s energy mix, and the country is the largest coal producer and consumer in the world.

In 2012, China produced 3.65 billion tons of coal and, by the end of 2010, China’s reserves were 13.3 percent of the total proven global reserves. According to a report published in Cornerstone Magazine, since 1990 the proportion of coal production and consumption in China’s total energy mix has always been greater than 70 percent, considerably higher than the approximately 20 percent in the U.S. and about 30 percent globally. It is predicted that, in 2030, China’s coal consumption will still account for more than 55 percent of its primary energy.

China may still be facing issues in terms of environmental regulation enforcement, but real-time data is now available from a number of power and industrial plants in the country. The fact that this report could be made at all, taken from publicly available government data, indicates progress in data transparency, which is the first step towards policy reform.

Perhaps this transparency can help cut through the country’s thickening smog.

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