Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

(Corrects definition of PM10 in fourth paragraph.)

For years Chinese have been told that the blinding, sooty haze choking Beijing and other cities is the price of progress. All rapidly industrializing economies have endured appalling levels of pollution, officials say. They insist that the only alternative is to slam the brakes on China’s economy and consign tens of millions to poverty. Yet China’s appetite for energy is literally killing its people.

A study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences illustrates how deadly China’s growth path has become. Analyzing data compiled between 1980 and 2000, the authors estimated that pollution caused by burning coal stripped five years from the life expectancy of Chinese in the northern half of the country -- a collective loss of 2.5 billion years. A separate study published in December in the Lancet attributed about a million deaths a year in China to air pollution.

Although other factors have contributed to the blackening of China’s skies -- including millions of cars and motorbikes clogging roads -- coal remains the deadliest. Burning coal produces 33 times as many particulates as oil, and almost 400 times as many as natural gas. The new study points out that other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides, are spread relatively evenly throughout China. Only coal, which was once provided free to northerners for home heating, could account for the drastically different life expectancies between north and south.

Rules Flouted

In the past decade, China’s coal consumption has more than doubled. The country now burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined. New regulations intended to make coal-fired plants cleaner -- including those requiring owners to install scrubbers to mitigate emissions -- are routinely flouted. In the first three months of the year, levels of PM10 (particulates with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less) in Beijing were almost 30 percent greater than during the same period a year before.

By contrast, in the U.S. CO2 emissions hit an 18-year low in 2012. The reason? An explosion in shale-gas production raised the share of electricity produced by natural gas from 20 percent to 30 percent, while bringing down the proportion produced by coal from 50 percent to 37 percent.

China’s recoverable shale-gas reserves are estimated to be 25 trillion cubic meters -- 50 percent larger than the U.S.’s. There are unique obstacles to establishing a Chinese shale-gas industry: China lacks freshwater resources and a wide network of gas pipelines; some of its reserves are in complex geological formations and earthquake-prone areas; existing hydraulic-fracturing technology won’t necessarily work in Chinese fields. But as Berkeley Earth environmentalist Elizabeth Muller points out, the U.S. faced similarly daunting technological challenges as recently as 2006. Since then, U.S. shale-gas production has grown 800 percent.

In fact, new shale-gas fracking techniques have shown that China could use salt water instead of fresh water in drilling. The speed with which Beijing laid thousands of miles of new highway across the country suggests how quickly the Chinese could build a pipeline network.

The bigger obstacles are political. Small, innovative companies have driven the shale-gas revolution in the U.S. In China, the big three state-owned energy giants still control critical geological data about the country’s reserves. Without that information, outsiders can’t even figure out which fields are most promising. In addition, a thicket of regulations makes it prohibitively difficult for smaller U.S. companies to operate in China’s energy sector. In its first two shale-gas-asset auctions in 2011 and 2012, China blocked foreign companies from making independent bids.

Drilling Incentives

Only Beijing can jump-start the industry. The government has already announced subsidies to local shale-gas producers; it should also help finance new pipelines and gas-fired power plants. More important, officials must lower barriers to entry and increase incentives to encourage the most innovative drilling companies -- the majority of which are American -- to work in China.

It’s true that fracking in the U.S. produced some dangerous environmental abuses in its early years. We have argued that Washington should craft national regulations for well casing and construction, among other rules. Doing so would now have the added benefit of setting a benchmark for China to follow.

Although Beijing has invested billions in nuclear power plants and wind and solar farms, there is no realistic prospect of those sources meeting more than a fraction of the country’s energy needs for decades. Shale is no silver bullet, either. In the near term China will have to keep building coal-fired plants to meet its voracious energy demand. Yet continued failure to address coal pollution will condemn millions more Chinese to premature deaths. It’s hardly a choice.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.