China’s Green Future Is As Hazy As Its Skies

By Keith Kloor | November 22, 2013 1:40 pm
Tiananmen tower enveloped by the heavy fog and haze in Jan 29, 2013. Image by axz700 / Shutterstock

Tiananmen tower enveloped by the heavy fog and haze in Jan 29, 2013.
Image by axz700 / Shutterstock

When China makes international news these days, it’s often because of its densely polluted air. The public health aspect of this story is usually front and center, while the global warming angle is somewhat muted. Still, there’s no getting around the climate implications of China’s reliance on coal.

There are signs that China is trying to rein in its smog problem by reducing its coal dependence. That’s a win for the planet, right? Not exactly, as Christina Larsen reported several months ago in this Bloomberg story:

Unfortunately, one scheme to limit coal burning by converting China’s plentiful coal supplies into synthetic natural gas (SNG) presents a host of other ecological worries. To date, China’s government has approved construction of nine large SNG plants in northern and western China, which are projected to generate 37 billion cubic meters of gas each year when completed. At least 30 more proposed plants are awaiting approval.

None of these planned plants are located near large Chinese cities, so the emissions generated in producing the gas will not hang directly over metropolises. But that doesn’t mean the coal-to-gas conversion process is clean. According to a new study (PDF) in Nature Climate Change, the entire life cycle of harvesting coal and turning it into gas produces from 36 percent to 82 percent more total greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal directly—depending on whether the gas is used to generate electricity or power vehicles.

But hey, let’s not complicate a nice silver lining story, shall we? If China is tackling its coal problem, we should be encouraged that “efforts to improve its air quality will also bring reductions in CO2 emissions,” writes Jennifer Duggan, a Shanghai-based journalist and Guardian environment blogger.

Why is this a misleading narrative that we should be wary of? As Slate’s Joshua Keating wrote earlier this week:

Focusing on smog—a relatively easy-to-solve problem—lets China a bit off the hook for the much larger issue at stake: the country’s CO2 emissions. China overtook the United States as the world’s largest total contributor to climate change in 2007, and it’s quite possible that the country could take steps to reduce the visible smog in its cities while that gap continues to widen. In fact, according to one recent analysis by the World Resources Institute, China’s smog reduction plan could actually increase its emissions by moving to synthetic natural gas converted from coal, which burns cleaner than coal but produces more CO2 overall. Tackling CO2 is going to be a much more difficult problem, and a much harder one to reconcile with the country’s desire to maintain its breakneck pace of economic development.

This coal-to-gas issue is “under-discussed,” says Robert Wilson. Indeed, people interested in climate change and the environment seem much more taken with stories about the “greening” of China. The larger picture, as David Biello reports this week in Scientific American, is much hazier, like China’s skies and the country’s near-term prospects for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Martin

    First things first: energy (for health and wealth etc), then energy without first order side effects (smog where the using people live), then without second order (pollution that affects everyone). We can expect that across the globe

  • jh

    Jeez, if you read the comments by the Green Energy Enthusiasts over on NPR’s website, you’d get the impression that China had abandoned coal altogether and is already living off nothing but Happy Power.

    But it goes to the point you made in your last post: in reality, Happy Power doesn’t exist.

  • Buddy199

    The fundamental “problem” is that billions of people in China and around the world don’t want to live in subsistence poverty anymore. Green planning will have to reconcile itself to that fact, not the other way around, or it will continue to fall short.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      This is very true.

  • harrywr2

    It’s important to avoid assumptions on what China is doing based on an ‘American’ or ‘Western European’ experience.

    depending on whether the gas is used to generate electricity or power vehicles.

    The Chinese are switching from coal to syngas for residential/commercial heating.

    http://www.rfa.org/english/commentaries/energy_watch/shortage-11042013110645.html

    This is an entirely different subject then switching from coal to coal derived syngas for electricity production.

    In an electric plant some level of pollution control can be installed on the exhaust stack to take out the worst pollutants.

    When we are talking about low grade coal being burned in residential furnace/fireplace the pollution controls are almost non-existent and the health impacts are enormous not to mention the soot issue.

    Chinese energy is almost always discussed in contexts of US or Western reference points by activists of all stripes.

    Coal fired residential heating in the Western World is at most an extremely small niche market. In China coal is the #1 residential heating method.

    Residential heating with coal in China is filthy and inefficient.

    But what the heck…is we compare coal burned in a power plant to syn gas burned in a power plant we can make some sort of ‘statement’ that reinforces the activists message.

    #1st rule of discussing Chinese Energy…almost everyone reporting on it is either a shill for a cause or has interpreted a statistic based on a ‘Western’ experience.

    The vast majority of coal consumption in the West is for electricity production. So much so that we can pretty much limit are discussions about the evils of coal to the evil electricity company.

    In China huge quantities of coal are being used for cement and steel production as well as residential heating.

    • Bill C

      the point that the gas is to be used for residential heating is important.
      it’s also easier to do carbon capture and storage if it was burned in a large central plant (such as for electricity, but also concrete steel etc). not that that was likely anytime soon regardless.

  • bobito

    It was interesting to see how much hydro power plays a part in China’s “greening” in the link you provided.

    I don’t think damming rivers is considered very green in the west. They must not have fish in China or something… ;)

    • jh

      Yeah, that’s interesting. thanks for highlighting that report.

      What’s more interesting is this statement:

      “China will add more electricity generating capacity from renewable sources by 2035 than the U.S., Europe, and Japan combined. “

      Of course it will, because it’s production capacity is growing at 5x the rate of the US and 10x the rate of the EU based on 1990-2008 data from wikipedia. All it has to do is keep the same proportion of renewables and it’s renewable growth will outpace the west by a huge margin, even if the west is increasing the proportion of renewables in its energy mix.

      Add to that your point that 1/3 of China’s renewable generation will come from hydro, which is hardly growing at all in the West because of the obvious environmental impacts, and Bloomberg’s proposition that China is becoming the King of Green looks even sillier.

      • bobito

        Yes, claiming China is a champion of green energy is like saying Saudi Arabia is a champion of human rights because they are considering allowing women to drive.

  • jh

    OT, but Keith I’m sure you’ll love this story on “mutant veggies” at Businessweek:

    http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-11-21/monsanto-vs-dot-mutant-crop-developers-in-global-seed-market#r=hp-ls

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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