Beijing is starting to take serious action on climate change.
First, many Chinese provinces are committing to robust coal control measures, with reductions in total coal consumption reaching 655 million tons by 2020 compared to a business as usual scenario.
Then came a series of whirlwind climate talks. The US-China climate talk concluded last week and has brought bilateral cooperation into a new level. Immediately after that, the Chinese minister Xie Zhenhua reportedly said that his country might incorporate a plan for emissions to peak as part of its post-2020 climate targets – the first time a senior official has said this in public.
Yet amid all this progress, the coal-to-gas industry located in China’s remote and dry west risks rendering the country’s mitigation efforts pointless.
- China’s planned coal-to-gas plants to emit over one billion tons of CO2
- How Beijing switching from coal burning to coal-to-gas could increase net CO2 emissions
Coal-to-gas refers to the industrial process to convert coal into synthetic natural gas (SNG). According to information gathered by Greenpeace, a total of 50 projects amounting to a capacity of 225 billion cubic metres (BCM) have been proposed.
Among them, two projects with capacity of 2.7 BCM are already operating. Three projects with capacity of 14.3 BCM are under construction. There are another 66 BCM of projects that have been approved and could start construction at any time. All the other projects are in various stages of the pipeline seeking approval.
The huge lineup of projects is largely driven by the need to alleviate China’s air pollution and upgrade its fuel from dirty coal to cleaner gas. Yet coal-to-gas is a misleading solution.
It is simply a way of transferring the gravity of China’s coal consumption and pollution from the east to the west, which actually adds even more to coal consumption in the end.
China’s National Energy Administration’s has set a target for 32 BCM of natural gas by 2017. Yet this production level will generate new coal demand of 103 million tons.
In comparison, the ambitious coal caps announced by Chinese provincial governments will reduce coal use by 118 million tons over the same period. The emerging coal-to-gas industry will almost offset the recent coal control measures.
Coal-to-gas technology is also heavily carbon intensive. To produce 1,000 cubic meters of synthetic gas, an average of 4.83 tons of CO2 will be emitted. If all the 225 BCM pipeline projects went ahead, a staggering 1.08 billion ton of CO2 will be emitted every year. This is 12.5% of China’s entire emissions in 2011.
The 83.3 BCM of projects being approved will imply 402 million ton of CO2 emission per year. This increase in emissions will - in one year - more than offset the entire pre-2020 emission reduction pledge of the US and is almost on par with that of the EU.
While China’s climate negotiators shuttle from one round of discussion to another, a key test is unfolding in their backyard. Left uncontrolled, the coal-to-gas industry will significantly undermine China’s otherwise strong efforts to tackle climate change.