The air pollution in China has become the stuff of legend, or rather of nightmare. The number of lung cancer cases in the capital of Beijing has increased by more than 50 percent in the past decade. Just last week, an eight-year-old girl in the province of Jiangsu was diagnosed with lung cancer. In September, the government announced its Air Pollution Control Action Plan, its latest initiative to address air pollution so bad that the smog over northeast China for the past two weeks has been visible from space.
China’s plan only offers a short-term solution for the thick air pollution wreaking havoc on its citizens’ health, to say nothing of the country’s environment. The government proposes to cut down on its dependence on coal (which currently provides three-quarters of its energy needs) by, first of all, prohibiting the construction of new coal-fired plants around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou; a number of coal-fire plants are being shut down.
But China’s replacement for coal will cause numerous environmental hazards. The government plans to building 18 synthetic natural gas plants to achieve its goal of a 65 percent reduction in coal’s part in meeting its national energy needs. But using natural gas as an alternative to coal poses many concerns.
China is proposing to convert its supplies of coal into synthetic natural gas (SNG). While SNG can help to cut down on particulate air pollution — reducing particulate matter by 25 percent in the North China Plain is another of the government’s goals — a study (pdf) published in Nature Climate Change has shown that the entire process of mining coal and converting it into natural gas can yield 36 percent to 82 percent more total greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal directly.
Proposed SNG Plants Could Create Water Insecurity
SNG plants have been approved for construction in northern and western China, far from the country’s major metropolitan cities. For instance, Beijing is to be powered by a natural gas plant built in Inner Mongolia. Bluer skies may be in store for China’s capital, but remoter regions could see murkier ones.
SNG plants pose another serious threat to China’s climate and to the livelihood of its many inhabitants. Converting coal to SNG necessitates “uniquely high volumes of water: six to 10 liters for every cubic meter of SNG.” That is, SNG’s water consumption is an average 18 times higher than that of coal.
China’s planned SNG plants are to have 75.1 billion cubic meters of natural-gas production capacity per year. As the World Resources Institute (WRI) points out, based on its Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, 75 percent of those plants are located in semi-arid or arid areas that have limited supplies of water or simply very little. SNG plants could use around 20 percent of the region’s industrial water use. If water is in short supply, the plants could have to reduce capacity or even face temporary outages.
SNG Plants Are Planned For Remote Regions Where Ethnic Minorities Live
Even more, residents of regions where SNG plants are located (Mongolia and Xinjiang) could see their livelihoods affected. The SNG plant located in Inner Mongolia is to generate at least 4 billion cubic meters of gas a year and will require 32 billion liters of fresh water. That is the amount of water needed to meet the domestic needs of one million Mongolian herders, farmers, households and more for a year.
China’s plans for reducing carbon emissions do not take into account the impact of its planned efforts on the rest of its environment and on the people, many of whom are, like the Uighurs in Xinjiang, ethnic minorities who have criticized the central government for repressing their culture and for encouraging Han Chinese (the dominant ethnic group in China) to settle in their homelands.
The WRI is calling on the Chinese government to include those who oversee policy about water and environmental protection in its energy planning process. Most of all, the WRI urges China to “stay away from shorter-term, more narrowly focused solutions like SNG.”
As it seeks to keep up its economic growth, China needs to consider industrial restructuring and energy efficiency measures as part and parcel of its air pollution plan. Otherwise, it will find itself having to contend with ecological and health issues just as and even more serious before too long.
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