Australia plays down impact of China ban on 'dirty coal' to curb pollution

SYDNE (AFP) - Australia on Wednesday played down the impact of China banning the sale and import of "dirty" coal, saying miners would adapt and exports would not be significantly affected.

The Chinese government on Tuesday said the anti-pollution move would take effect from Jan 1 to help tackle the choking smog that regularly blankets its cities after three decades of rapid industrialisation. Much of that pollution is driven by its heavy reliance on coal, with the Asian giant the world's largest consumer. Australia is a key supplier, exporting 49 million tonnes of thermal coal to China annually.

Under the new rules, coal with sulphur content of more than three per cent and ash content of more than 40 per cent will no longer be permitted.

The Sydney Morning Herald splashed the story on its front page on Wednesday, saying it could expose the industry to billions of dollars in lost sales.

But the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), a top industry body, said this was "alarmist" and there was "no evidence to suggest that Australian coal exports to China would be significantly affected".

"We are confident that the Australian industry can meet the proposed specifications and therefore the MCA sees no impact from these regulations," it said in a statement. It added that almost all Australian black thermal coal would be well within the thresholds for ash, sulphur and energy applying to imported coal and could be blended with other coal to meet the target if it was not.

The council said the regulations largely refer to what is colloquially known as "San Coal" - coal used for small boilers and domestic heating, and not large-scale power plants or other industrial users.

"We are not aware that Australian coal is supplied in these markets," it said.

Seeking to address mounting public concern about the environment, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in March said that China "will declare war against pollution and fight it with the same determination we battled poverty".

The government will shut down 50,000 small coal-fired furnaces this year, clean up coal-burning power plants and remove six million high-emission vehicles from the roads, Li said.

Despite this, the council said coal currently accounts for 80 per cent of China's electricity output "and all leading energy forecasting agencies and analysts agree that ongoing industrialisation and urbanisation will drive robust coal demand for decades to come".

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