Oops. China Choosing Carbon Dead End for Part of Air Pollution Solution.

May 6, 2014

This coal-to-gas plant built by Datang International is the first of its kind in Inner Mongolia. It creates methane that can be piped to Beijing, where it can be used as a cleaner burning fuel to reduce air pollution. But the plant itself can send out quite a stench. Hal Bernton, Seattle Times

I’ve reported, hopefully, that China is moving quickly on renewables, and taking a serious look at reducing air pollution from coal burning in urban areas. One of the proposed ‘solutions” to air quality problems is clearly misguided.

Seattle Times:

The new coal plant here is an industrial fortress of boilers, tanks and towers that stretches across a lonely plateau in Inner Mongolia.

All day long and through the night, it vents huge gray clouds of steam and emits an awful stench.

Though it may seem odd, this is part of China’s campaign to combat the nation’s notorious urban smog. The plant transforms low-grade coal into a cleaner-burning methane gas that can be piped to cities, replacing dirtier fuels that now are used to cook meals, heat homes and produce electricity.

The Chinese leadership has called for the accelerated development of these coal-to- gas plants, and more are under construction in areas distant from major urban centers.

But embracing this technology to fight air pollution involves a serious environmental trade off. The plants that produce this gas spew far more carbon emissions than those that burn coal to generate electricity.

“They’re going to lock in emissions. China — and the world — will bear the consequences for decades,” said Robert Jackson, professor of environment and energy at Stanford University.

A study published last year in Energy Policy found that producing, transporting and combusting this coal-generated gas results in up to 82 percent more carbon emissions than burning China’s coal directly to generate electricity


Currently 16 coal base sites are being built and many are operational. One being constructed in Inner Mongolia will eventually occupy nearly 400 square miles—almost the size of the sprawling city of Los Angeles.

Driving China’s desire to create coal bases are its soaring energy demand, abundant coal resources, lack of inexpensive alternatives and the need to move coal power production out of its cities—which are already drowning in smog from dirty coal plants. Meanwhile, its energy-hungry economy is booming to meet insatiable demands of consumers in America and Europe for cheaply manufactured products.

By any measure, China’s coal base plan is the single largest fossil fuel development project in the world. So while more coal bases could mean cleaner air for many urban Chinese, scientists fear a nightmare scenario for global climate change.

By 2011, humans had added 531 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading global body for assessing climate science. That figure means countries have already blown through more than half of the world’s “carbon budget”—or the maximum amount of carbon humans can spew into the air to keep warming below 2-degrees Celsius, the threshold that would trigger runaway warming.

Experts estimate that if China’s planned coal bases are built, the country’s emissions would likely hit 10 billion tonnes a year—putting it on track to consume the world’s remaining 349 billion tonnes by 2050.

“This is a major change in China,” said Robert Jackson, director of Duke University’s Center on Global Change, of the coal bases. “If they proceed, both water use and greenhouse gases would skyrocket.”

Meanwhile, presumably this will be the subject of US and Chinese talks on climate policy.


“Just a patch of blue sky big enough “to make a sailor a pair of trousers”, my parents’ generation would say, may herald a break in dismal weather. Against all expectation, rather more than that seems to be opening up amid the dark clouds that have so far shrouded the prospects of the world agreeing a new treaty to combat climate change.

China and the United States – by far the world’s greatest emitters of carbon dioxide – have started far-reaching, if little-noticed, talks on how to cut the pollution, in what is being described as the most hopeful single development in tackling global warming for almost 20 years.


Both are accelerating their efforts to control their own emissions, a considerable change for the two nations, which together account for more than two in every five tons of the greenhouse gas spewed into the atmosphere worldwide each year. The US’s refusal to join the Kyoto Protocol was long the major obstacle to progress, while China – exempted from that limited treaty – has increased its emissions to exceed those of the US and the EU combined.

What’s more, it was a clash between the two countries that did more than anything to cause the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit to end in disappointment. So the prospect of them co-operating in paving the way to the next one, in Paris at the end of next year, is significant.

This week, moreover, another unexpected development brightened the skies even further. The conservative-majority US Supreme Court – which has generally opposed Barack Obama’s environmental policies – backed, by a surprisingly large 6-2 majority, his attempt to crack down on pollution from the power stations that emit 40 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse gases.

Although the momentum of China’s fossil fuel push is daunting – it is good to keep in mind that just because something is planned, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.  China is running up against some very harsh natural limits, primarily on water – that make any linear extrapolation of current fossil development very questionable.

Seattle Times again:

When operating at full capacity, the Datang International plant will require more than 7 billion gallons of water each year. And this is just a side stream of the vast flows of water demanded by plants turning coal into gas, chemicals and electricity in Inner Mongolia and other regions of China’s north and west.

These coal complexes rank among the planet’s largest industrial emitters of carbon dioxide, which in the decades ahead will escalate climate change and acidification of the oceans.

But right now, the coal industry’s massive thirst may be both its biggest liability and the biggest constraint to expansion in a nation of more than 1.3 billion people struggling with serious water shortages.

Vast amounts of water are used for cooling and processing some 4 billion tons of coal that China consumes each year.

Some 15 percent of the nation’s annual water withdrawals are claimed by the coal industry, with many mines and plants located in arid areas where rivers are under stress, underground aquifers are in decline and pollution is rampant.

In the decades ahead, climate change will aggravate China’s water problems by melting glaciers that help sustain the summer flows of some major rivers. By 2030, the basin of the Yellow River, China’s second-longest river, is forecast to be 18 percent short of the water needed to meet demand, according to a study from China’s Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.

Conservation efforts by the Chinese government include the construction of new coal-fired power plants that recirculate the water used for cooling. China also is spending $62 billion to redistribute water by canals from wetter areas of the country to dry zones in one of the biggest construction projects of all time.

Despite such efforts, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, in a report released earlier this year, noted that most of the power plants operated by the five largest state-owned power companies are in water-scarce areas and at high risk of flow disruptions during the next two decades. There may not be enough water to support all the new coal plants, the report added.



8 Responses to “Oops. China Choosing Carbon Dead End for Part of Air Pollution Solution.”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Yep, we are definitely whistling past the graveyard. A very depressing piece, except for the dark humor evident in “China and the U.S. are talking” and “just because it’s planned doesn’t ,mean it will be built”.

  2. Not whistling past the graveyard.  Playing with matches while standing in a lake of gasoline.  The thawing of arctic permafrost is already accelerating the release of methane.


    • Thanks for this link, which also yielded useful links. I am now persuaded that R&D is necessary but vastly insufficient – aggressive mitigation is absolutely essential. We could start with a carbon tax.

      • I live to broadcast information, to break through the echo chambers and make reality accessible to and knowable by all who can stretch their minds to encompass it.

        A carbon tax would be a good start, but you’d have a lot of trouble accounting for land-use changes and their effect on non-fossil carbon inventories.  It is imperative to end the clearing of forests and draining of peat bogs.  I suspect that a major part of remediation will come from the engineered increase in soil carbon inventories.  Can you properly incentivize the good things, and tax the bad ones?  That’s as important as showing they work.

  3. […] I've reported, hopefully, that China is moving quickly on renewables, and taking a serious look at reducing air pollution from coal burning in urban areas. One of the proposed 'solutions" to air qu…  […]

  4. rayduray Says:

    “It’s what China does that controls the world.” – Alan Robock

  5. cyhalothrin Says:

    This is a good article, and ought to be read (and reread if necessary) by those who claim that replacing coal with natural gas is the grand solution (or even a partial solution) to AGW. Just as with natural gas produced by fracking (which leaks methane into the atmosphere), building coal-to-gas conversion plants is one of those feel-good technologies which make it appear that we’re solving the problem of CO2 emissions when in fact we’re actually making things worse.

    Right now in Taiwan we’re undergoing a similar debate. About 20% of our power comes from nuclear, 3% from hydro, and the rest from imported coal. Post-Fukushima, our very vocal anti-nuke movement wants to shut down the nukes, raising the question of just what we could replace them with. One of the proposed grand solutions is to convert all the existing power plants to natural gas, since it is claimed to emit 50% fewer CO2 emissions as compared to coal. That sounds good in theory, but less good once you look at the details. Since we have no natural gas resources in Taiwan, we have to import, but this is an island and thus nearly impossible to construct a natural gas pipeline, so all gas would come to us in the form of LNG. One big problem with LNG is that you immediately lose around 40% of its energy just from the process of refrigerating it to a low enough temperature to keep it liquid. That negates most of its benefit over coal, but it gets even worse when you want to use LNG produced from fracking in the USA (which is part of the big proposal our politicians are talking about).

    So I really think that “clean natural gas” is no solution at all, and needs to be put out to pasture. It’s good for public relations, but not much else. And ditto for “clean coal.”

  6. […] 2014/05/06: PSinclair: Oops. China Choosing [Coal to Gas] Carbon Dead End for Part of Air Pollution … […]

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