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Some Chinese power plants may underreport sulfur dioxide emissions

Data from air pollution monitors don’t jibe with satellite measurements

by Cheryl Hogue
June 23, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 26

Photo shows a coal-fired power plant with two large smokestacks.
Paul J. Martin/Shutterstock
This coal-fired power plant is in Liaoyuan in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.

Emissions of sulfur dioxide from China’s coal-fired power plants dropped significantly overall after a new national pollution limit took effect in 2014, as shown by data from monitoring instruments at facilities and a NASA satellite. But the case is different for a tougher SO2 standard applying only to plants in highly polluted, densely populated areas, researchers found.

For those regions, which include cities in the greater Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei vicinity, the Pearl River delta, and the Yangtze River delta, stack monitoring data reported to local authorities by plant operators indicate that power plants are meeting the tighter SO2 emission limit—but satellite measurements say otherwise, says a team of researchers from MIT; University of Colorado, Boulder; and Columbia University (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2018, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1800605115). This disparity indicates the monitoring information could be misreported, the researchers say.

They suggest China boost penalties for inaccuracies in or falsification of emission data, which historically have been lower than penalties for violating air pollution limits.

SO2 emissions contribute to fine particulate pollution, which can cause breathing problems and other health effects, acid rain, and haze.


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