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Greenpeace: China’s Energy Plans Exacerbate Climate Change

By Edward Long (The New York Times) - July 23, 2014

Two operational coal-to-gas plants in China and 48 proposed ones would together emit an estimated 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year and contribute significantly to climate change, according to a report released Tuesday by Greenpeace East Asia.

That amount of emissions is equal to about an eighth of China’s current total carbon dioxide emissions, which come mostly from coal-burning power plants and factories, said the organization, which is based in Beijing.

To combat air pollution, Chinese policy makers have been discussing building scores of coal-to-gas plants, mostly in northwest China, in order to provide gas to densely populated eastern regions for power. That energy source would take the place of current coal-burning power plants in the biggest population centers of China, including the heavily polluted northern region that includes the cities of Beijing and Tianjin.

Last September, the government announced a broad air pollution alleviation plan that, if followed, would result in cuts on coal use in the most populated areas by 2017 over 2012 levels. So officials are now looking for other ways to provide power for those areas.

Coal-to-gas, or coal gasification, is a water-intensive process that generates enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, which is the main greenhouse gas destabilizing the world’s climate. Many scientists have criticized the process and said its use would be even worse for global climate conditions than burning coal to directly generate electricity, which itself is already considered hugely harmful in terms of emitting air pollutants and carbon dioxide.

On their websites, Chinese state-owned power companies categorize proposed coal-to-gas projects as “clean energy” or “new energy.” China is responsible for half of the annual global coal consumption and is the world’s the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, followed by the United States. Chinese and American officials have been engaged in on-and-off negotiations for years over how each nation can pledge to cap or reduce its coal use to try to avert severe climate change.

Last October, two researchers at Duke University published a commentary in Nature Climate Change that said Chinese policy makers should delay the huge investments in coal-to-gas projects “to avoid a potentially costly and environmentally damaging outcome. An even better decision would be to cancel the program entirely.”

In a written statement, Li Shuo, a climate analyst at Greenpeace East Asia, said on Tuesday: “Our research has revealed that China risks a boom in a destructive, expensive and outdated technology, which could undermine its efforts on climate change and further damage its environment. This wouldn’t be in China’s interest, and, with a new round of climate negotiations on the horizon, global leaders need to work with China to ensure it doesn’t happen.”

A chart issued with the Greenpeace report made a stark comparison between the 50 Chinese projects’ estimated 1.1 billion tons of emissions and the United States government’s stated goal of reducing the country’s carbon dioxide emissions by 396 million tons in 2020 over 2005 levels.
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Greenpeace said it had written its report based on analyses of all 50 operational or proposed coal-to-gas projects, some of which are at the early stages of planning. There are currently two operational pilot projects; the other 48 are in the works. Eighty percent of the 50 plants would be located in northwest China, in the provinces or regions of Xinjiang, western Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Gansu.

All those areas suffer from severe water shortages. The Greenpeace report said that besides the surge in carbon dioxide emissions, other negative consequences of operating the plants include worsening water scarcity, water pollution and air pollution.

One of the operational pilot projects is in Inner Mongolia, and the other is in Xinjiang. In line with central government policy, Beijing is trying to decrease its coal use and turn to the new gas source from Inner Mongolia to help meet its energy needs. The government of the city of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, and Beijing Enterprises Group have reached an agreement in which Inner Mongolia would provide Beijing with four billion cubic meters of synthetic natural gas per year.

The gas would come from the coal-to-gas plant, which is operated by China Datang Corporation, one of the top five national state-owned power companies. The amount of gas generated from the plant would be equal to half of Beijing’s current annual gas demand.

The Greenpeace report cited research from Tsinghua University showing that this agreement would result in a drop in coal use in Beijing of 8.94 million tons per year, but an increase in Inner Mongolia of 12.03 million tons.

There would mean a net growth in carbon dioxide emissions of 3.77 million tons per year and an increase in water consumption of 24 million tons, the report said.

On Monday, the National Energy Administration of China announced that it would place limits on proposed coal-to-gas projects. It said China will ban coal-to-gas projects that will produce less than two billion cubic meters of gas per year and coal-to-oil projects producing less than one million tons of oil per year. It also said provinces or regions that are net importers of coal cannot start coal-to-gas projects.

A report by Xinhua, the state news agency, said the energy administration had come up with the limits “after new technology sparked an investment spree regardless of environmental and economic realities.” The guidelines were aimed at the local authorities. So far, specific coal-to-gas projects have generally been proposed by provincial officials and provincial state-owned enterprises.

Ma Wen, a Greenpeace researcher on coal-to-gas projects, said in a written statement that “the new N.E.A. directive shows that China’s energy authority is clearly concerned that its big plan for coal-to-gas plants in western China, seen as a solution for eastern China’s air pollution problem, could go wrong.”

“But the document stops short at merely stressing the necessity of closely monitoring the projects’ development,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that Beijing is fully aware that western China, including Xinjiang and western Inner Mongolia, don’t have the environmental or water capacity to accommodate its coal-to-gas initiative, or that by 2030 the projects in total could produce almost 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year.”