China is relying on coal-fired power plants to meet severe electricity shortages, but such heavy polluters are damaging the environment and harming its people and its neighbours.

Energy shortfalls are reaching crisis levels in China, with a 30,000-megawatt shortfall in electricity this summer — the worst shortage since the 1980s.

To meet the rapidly growing economy’s huge demands, the country is building more coal-fired power plants — which emit large amounts of sulphur dioxide and other pollutants, causing acid rain and leading to respiratory illnesses.

From 2000 to 2002, air pollutant emissions actually decreased due to government efforts to control pollution, but last year pollution levels increased by about 12 percent from 2002, according to government statistics.

“Pollution is now very serious. Pollution levels in 2003 were a lot higher than 2002,” said Wang Jian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration’s atmospheric division.

“Electricity production increased in 2003, so the pollution increased.”

Last year, electricity capacity increased by more than 15 percent, generated mainly by coal-fired power plants, which still produce 75 percent of China’s power.

Wang said there was little other choice for China.

“Electricity is now in serious shortage. It’s impossible not to build more coal-fired power plants. China’s main resource is coal, so it is inevitable that most power plants are coal-fired power plants,” he said.

Governmental studies on the impact of air pollution on health have been conducted but cannot be publicized, Wang said, saying the studies were not yet thorough or scientific.

The World Bank, however, estimates 400,000 people in China die each year from air pollution-related illnesses, mainly lung and heart diseases.

Neighbouring countries, especially South Korea and Japan, as well as Hong Kong are also suffering.

International experts estimate as much as 40 percent of the air pollution in Japan and South Korea originates from China, said Dan Millison, a Manila-based environment and energy specialist for the Asian Development Bank.

“If we’re getting predictions of this magnitude and no one’s disputing this, we’re safe to conclude there’s a significant contribution that’s falling out from the mainland to South Korea and Japan,” Millison said.

“It’s getting worse in recent years because China is undergoing unprecedented economic growth,” said Boo Kyung-Jin, an expert at the Korea Energy Economics Institute, a government-sponsored research institute.

“South Koreans are increasingly concerned. In Spring, everybody is coughing, even healthy people,” Boo said.

China has not denied that it is exporting pollution, but it has been slow to act.

The problem, experts say, is that coal-fired power plants are cheaper and quicker to build than other types such as natural gas, nuclear or hydroelectric plants. Coal is also readily available.

The Chinese government has ordered the plants to adopt pollution control measures, such as by installing emissions cleaning equipment, but requirements are not strictly enforced, experts said.

At issue is that China still does not take environmental problems seriously, and considers economic development as more important than environmental protection, they said.

“Culturally and socially, I think there’s still a widely held belief that they’re not rich enough to clean up yet,” said Millison.

Some experts, such as Boo, suggested China, with the help of neighbouring countries, try to roll back desertification in its northwestern regions to control the annual dust storms that carry pollution to its neighbors.

Others, however, say China must also reduce pollution within its borders, by cracking down on polluting power plants.

“There’s a pollution levy, but it’s cheaper for factories to pay the levy than to clean up the pollution,” Millison said.

Also, the price that power plants are paid for the electricity they sell to the grid is supposed to include costs of building pollution-control equipment, but in reality the costs are not included, Millison said.

Energy pricing is also a problem. Much of the increased energy use comes from increased wealth in the more prosperous coastal areas, but China has been reluctant to hike electricity rates for fear of slowing growth.

“For the same amount of economic output, China is consuming 57 percent more energy than Indonesia, three times more than South Korea, 3.5 times more than the United States and more than eight times more than Japan,” Millison said.

Wang said the government recognized that energy waste was a big problem.

“We must be more energy efficient,” Wang said, insisting the situation would get better as the government had awoken to the problem.

Korean and Japanese experts, meanwhile, are trying to collect hard evidence of imported pollution to present to China, in the hope that it will finally persuade Beijing to take action.

There is also growing evidence that the pollution has reached North America, and the US will likely eventually join in applying pressure.

But the problem, Millison said, is that China is expected to continue relying on coal for years to come.

“If you look at current trends, it’s not changing,” said Millison.