Smog politics and cement overcapacity


Updated Thu, 04 Dec 2014 09:41:12 GMT

China has admitted once again that its cement industry is plagued by over-capacity. State news agency Xinhua came clean this week as it reported that 103 production lines have been closed for the winter months.

The principal reason given for the winter shutdown was prevention of air pollution with resolution of overcapacity presented as a handy secondary. With long term plans in place to reduce overcapacity through industry mergers, demolitions and bans on new plants this is one more offshoot from the very public problems that smog and industrial pollution has given the Chinese government.

The policy follows a similar shutdown in China's far-western state of Xinjian that has been implemented since 1 November 2014. Xinjian is away from China's main cement production heartland in the south and east of the country. The idea here is to stagger winter production from cement kilns that use coal to avoid flue gas emissions rising when coal consumption for heating also rises. Since cement consumption by the construction industry is lower in the winter, a stoppage at this time of year should affect the cement producers less. Proposals have also been made to include Inner Mongolia and Hebei into the scheme.

The three provinces in question now - Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin – represent 80Mt/yr or 6% of China's total cement production capacity from 28 cement plants, according to the Global Cement Directory 2014. This is broadly in line with the proportion of national population the three provinces hold.

Back in 2012 the National Development and Reform Commission suggested that national cement capacity utilisation was 69%. Local media in China have been reporting that currently Xinjian uses 60%. Western commentators reckon that China uses only 50% of the cement industry's total production capacity. By contrast India, the world's second biggest cement producer after China, has been lamenting this year that capacity utilisation had fallen below 70%. Worldwide, excluding China, capacity utilisation rates have been estimated to be just below 70% in 2014.

Plummeting particulate matter counts are great for Beijing's cyclists and their continued goodwill towards the government. However, the implications are bad for the producers who are affected and the associated industries. As one Chinese equipment manufacturer commented on Global Cement's LinkedIn Group, "...many small manufacturers of cement plants in China will go bankrupt." Unfortunately this too is also in line with the country's strategy to reign in its cement industry through industry consolidation. It may yet turn out sunny for the state planners... once the smog clears.