China's 'War on Pollution' May End Up Accelerating Climate Change

The country has vowed to give up coal. But what will come next?

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Associated Press

This week, the Chinese government vowed to launch a "war on pollution." Public enemy number one will have to be coal-fired power plants, whose emissions kill more than a quarter-million people a year, according to Greenpeace. In fact, a coal industry forum this week declared that China's coal consumption will peak by 2020 (link in Chinese), and then start falling by 0.4 percent annually thereafter.

This sounds like great news. But it also begs the question, with coal now providing 65 percent of China's energy, where’s the cleaner energy that’s going to replace it coming from?

Stratfor Global Intelligence
 

China doesn't have enough natural gas to meet its energy needs, and its nuclear sector is also relatively small. Clean technologies such as wind and solar are still immature. That's why a lot of the country’s energy will come from "coal natural gas," aka synthetic natural gas or syngas. Created by burning natural gas developed from coal, this form of energy creates a fraction of the pollutants spewed out by coal-fired power plants. But it also emits up to 82 percent more carbon dioxide and guzzles huge amounts of water.


Each dot represents the average water consumption by fuel type; the bar indicates the range of water volumes consumed by each fuel type. (While the production of shale gas requires a significant amount of water withdrawal, most of water used in the hydraulic fracturing process returns to the environment or is reused in the system.) World Resources Institute

Cleaning up air pollution is clearly the priority. The rapid growth in demand for syngas will see the government accelerate the approval of new projects, according to the forum, aiming for 2015 production of between 15 billion and 18 billion cubic meters a year (530-636 billion cubic feet).
 
"With the present rapidly developing coal-to-gas projects, there is high enthusiasm for coal natural gas projects everywhere," said Zhang Fang, associate dean of the China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Planning Institute, at the coal forum. "By 2020, China coal natural gas production will reach 60 billion cubic meters."
 

That's pretty scary, given that China already belches out a quarter of the world's energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
 

China emitted 9.9 billion tonnes of CO2 (pdf, p.10) in 2012, a 3.3 percent increase on the previous year; that increase came largely from coal-fired power plant production. That was an improvement from the 10 percent annual increase that China had averaged for the last decade or so. But imagine what will happen as China's coal-fired power plants are swapped out for syngas, emitting 82 percent more CO2.

And then there's China's water crisis. The vast majority of the approved syngas plants are in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, already two of China's most parched regions. As World Resources International, a non-profit group, told us last year, these projects will draw water away from local farmers and herders.

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It’s not like there aren’t other options. The government has stymied the development of shale gas, possibly because China needs its coal companies to stay in business. And while there are clean coal-burning technologies available—for example, sulfur-scrubbing and carbon-capture—those are expensive.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Chiu.

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About the Author

  • Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.