Energy, coal combustion and atmospheric pollution in Northeast Asia


Residential coal combustion poses a serious risk to health and well-being in the cities of northeast Asia. Sharing technical know-how can make an important difference to the people and environment of affected areas.

  • Executing agency: UN/DESA Division for Sustainable Development
  • Start date: 15 July 1994
  • Partners: UNDP, national governments, research institutes, private sector and non-governmental organisations
  • Total budget: USD 1,558,703


Northeast Asia encompasses China, the Democratic Peopleís Republic of Korea (DPRK), Mongolia, and the Republic of Korea (ROK). Of the four northeast Asian countries, three of them rely mainly on coal for their primary energy needs: DPRK 85%, Mongolia 80%, and China 77%. Even in the ROK where fuel substitution has been widely introduced, large volumes of low-grade coal are still used for power generation and residential heating, accounting for nearly 20% of primary energy.

In most countries, coal is used primarily in thermal electric power generation, where the emission of pollutants can be easily controlled. In northeast Asia, however, the situation is complicated by the abundant use of coal in the industrial (45%), and residential (16%) sectors, mainly for steam production and space heat, respectively. In these sectors, coal combustion generally occurs in small, captive, and highly dispersed units. These units operate at very low conversion efficiencies, have negative consequences for the environment, and significantly add to the difficulty of controlling air pollution.

Overall, the regionís high rate of coal use has caused severe environmental impacts throughout the fuel cycle: from coal mining and processing, to transportation, combustion and conversion. But the most pressing environmental concern is air pollution from fugitive dust emissions, the production of sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and particulate (total suspended particles, or TSP), all of which are produced during the combustion and conversion phases. The resulting air pollution is associated with a high incidence of respiratory disease, and ecological damage from the production of acid rain. Separately another cause for concern is the regionís heavy production of greenhouse gases, namely carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal combustion and methane (CH4) from coal mining.

But there are even larger environmental issues that go beyond just national pollution control. Many of the existing environmental problems are trans-national (or transboundary) in nature. For instance, aerosols are transported by prevailing winds and are eventually deposited on vegetation, soils or water bodies in the region. The main deposition pathway is though washout by precipitation, commonly referred to as acid rain. The long-range transport of acidifying aerosols of sulphur and nitrogen compounds is the main contributor to the observed widespread regional acid rain problem. So far, however, pollution control policies and mitigation efforts that recognize these transnational issues have been slow to develop. In other words, while there have been some moves in this area, there is as yet no systematic regional approach which addresses the region-wide impacts of atmospheric pollution. Further impeding efforts are a number of practical matters that are acting as constraints to improving air quality, such as a lack of reliable data and information on pollution sources. Deficiencies such as these are hindering cooperative efforts in the region, particularly the effective and timely intervention of bilateral and multilateral donors.

To address air pollution associated with massive use of coal in northeast Asia, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), in collaboration with government authorities and scientists concerned, have launched a regional project entitled 'Energy, Coal Combustion and Atmospheric Pollution' (RAS/92/461). The project promotes the development and deployment of clean coal technologies, such as circulated fluidized bed combustion and coal briquetting, to reduce the emission of SO2, NOx , TSP and greenhouse gases on the one hand. On the other, it supports technical, institutional and informational preparation for regional cooperation in the filed of transboundary pollution reduction.

Export group on transboundary pollution modelling

In view that theoretical modeling is the only tool available for projecting acid deposition and transmission, the project aims at strengthening technical capacity at country level and promoting regional cooperation for the development and eventual use of models. As a result of this thrust, the expert group on transboundary pollution modeling was set up in 1997 consisting of environmental and computer scientists from the northeast Asian countries.

Over the last two years, tangible progress has been made toward realizing the objectives set for the project and boosting subregional cooperation on air pollution control and efficient use of coal resources.

One of the most important achievements of the expert group was that country representatives reached a consensus on the overall, longer-term goals of subregional trans-boundary air pollution modeling work and on a shorter-term strategy for subregional cooperation assisted by the project. In a long run, the specification and development of a single, but not exclusive, system for modeling of trans-boundary air pollution in the subregion was necessary. This long-term goal should emphasize the development of a useful model that will ultimately produce an impact by spurring the reduction of pollutant emissions. In a shorter term (next two to three years) the project should support specific activities that focus on the enhancement of subregional cooperation and modeling capabilities. Specifically they included:

  • compilation of a manual for pollutant inventory preparation to ensure that emissions inventory data are prepared consistently for input to the different models in use in the subregion
  • establishing an internet-based clearinghouse for data and information gathering and sharing within northeast Asia and beyond
  • providing technical training to Mongolia and DPRK, as required, on pollution monitoring and inventory formulation; and
  • organizing training on methodology and techniques required for acid deposition impact evaluation
Subregional networking and exchange on clean coal technology

The project has arranged a series of activities aiming at boosting subregional cooperation in the application of coal cleaning. Coal cleaning reduces the ash content of coal as well as other substances such as sodium which is associated with corrosion and deposition in boilers. It can remove 10-40% of inorganic sulphur, which is the cheapest way to reduce sulphur emissions. The larger the percentage of inorganically bound sulphur in the coal, the higher the percentage of sulphur that can be removed. Hence, the use of washed coal is the most cost-effective way to reduce the environmental impact of coal combustion for residential, industry, and power production. Experts from the participating countries visited coal washing facilities in China and ROK followed by extensive discussions concerning technologies and equipment that were the most appropriate to Northeast Asia. Country representatives also exchanged views and experiences regarding supportive policy and institutional arrangements to encourage the use of cleaned coal. Bilateral cooperation possibilities in coal washing were explored.

Demonstration of coal briquetting techniques in Mongolia

Government representatives approved the establishment of a pilot plant for coal briquetting in Mongolia. Thanks to the cooperation of Mongolian and Chinese experts and technicians, a workshop was set up in the Ulan Bator suburb, a complete briquetting plant capable of producing 40,000 ton of coal briquette per year was transferred, installed and is now in operation.

Study on the utilization of natural gas produced in eastern Russia for the northeast Asian subregion

The far-east subregion of Russia, including Sahkalin Island and East Siberia, has long been known to have abundant resources of natural gas and oil. Many international oil companies together with Russian authorities are carrying out massive exploration in the region and made great progress towards commercial production. Oil companies and financial organizations engaged in the Sakhalin project naturally look into the gas market, as well as related transport and distribution issues, as part of feasibility study. The results, however, have not been published. China, the DPRK, Mongolia and the ROK face pressing demands for clean energy supply alternatives and although aware of this gas development project have not been involved to date. It has therefore become an important role of the United Nations to facilitate the flow of information between gas developers and potential users in northeast Asia and to establish strategies for cooperation and collaboration for the mutual benefit of all countries concerned.

To date, experts from China, Mongolia, ROK and Russia have prepared a country study analyzing potential markets for Russian natural gas in their respective countries and identified technical, economic and political constraints to future development and utilization. It is anticipated that the baseline report will be presented to a symposium to be held in mid-2000. The report will be widely distributed before the symposium and major stakeholders will be invited to the symposium.