China Confronts Its Coal Problem –

The Chinese government has indicated a strong desire — and made some specific proposals — to reduce its reliance on coal, a step that would be a welcome development for the Chinese people and the planet as a whole. But there is a lot we don’t know yet about Beijing’s strategy and whether it will be bold enough to have a meaningful effect on local air quality and climate change.

State-owned news outlets reported this month that the government would ban the use of coal in Beijing and other urban areas by 2020 in an effort to reduce the noxious air pollution that chokes many cities. In July, a Chinese academic who is also a senior lawmaker said the government was considering a national cap on coal use as soon as 2016.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, using about 45 percent of the global total. It is also the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. So China’s energy policies will be crucial to limiting the damage from climate change. It’s thus welcome news when President Xi Jinping says that reducing pollution will be a priority for his administration.

But he and other officials have provided few details — and, indeed, have sent conflicting, even disturbing, signals about their plans. Some measures China is considering could actually exacerbate climate change.

One particularly misguided plan, for instance, would involve building 50 large industrial facilities in western China to convert coal into synthetic natural gas. This would help the government reduce air pollution in Beijing and Shanghai by replacing coal-fired power plants with cleaner gas facilities. But the process of converting coal to gas would increase the country’s total carbon emissions and consume huge amounts of water in what are already arid regions.

A recent Greenpeace report estimated that the 50 plants China is planning to build could spew as much as 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year, or about one-eighth of the country’s total emissions in 2011. The country already has two coal-to-gas plants in operation, is building three more and has approved the construction of 16 others. China and the world cannot afford the damage these plants will cause.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of familiar strategies — many already deployed in other countries — that could enable China to reduce its use of coal in ways that would benefit both its cities and the planet.

It can do a lot more to encourage industry and consumers to use energy more efficiently; the country’s economy still uses more energy to generate each unit of output than the world average.

China itself, much like Europe and some states in the United States, has recently begun regional emission trading systems. If strengthened, China’s systems could play an important role in encouraging efficiency. Officials have also talked about imposing a carbon tax, which could push industries toward cleaner fuels.

The country can also do more to tap into shale gas in a prudent way. By some estimates, China’s shale reserves could be nearly twice as big as American reserves. China will also need to invest more in renewable energy sources and nuclear power to meet the needs of its large and increasingly urban population.

The wretched air in China’s cities is forcing Chinese officials to change their energy policies. If they do a good job tackling local pollution, they could also have a big impact on climate change.

via China Confronts Its Coal Problem –