China consumes upwards of four billion tonnes of coal per year—as much as the rest of the world combined. However, rising public opinion opposing terrible air quality in major Chinese cities has authorities reassessing their energy plans. Earlier this year, the central government banned the building of new coal-fired power plants in the areas surrounding Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in an attempt to combat the smog. While many have commented that that these types of policy shifts represent a positive trend in the fight against global climate change, a new study on China’s coal-fuelled synthetic natural gas (SNG) plans calls this optimism into question.
SNG plants convert coal into natural gas that can be used for electricity production or residential heating. As natural gas burns considerably cleaner than coal and emits none of the smog-causing pollutants, SNG can be used in power plants close to cities and burned in households for heat without harming air quality. By building these SNG plants in the West, any pollution resulting from this use of coal will be kept far from industrial and population centres.
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That said, while SNG addresses the problem of air quality, it greatly exacerbates China’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. The life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of SNG are 700% higher than conventional natural gas, up to 82% higher than pulverized-coal if used to generate electricity, and 200% higher than gasoline if used to fuel vehicles. SNG is also very water-intensive, requiring 6-12 litres of water per m3 compared to only 0.1-0.2 litres of water per m3 for shale gas—this puts increased strain on already tight water supplies in the Chinese hinterland.
Source: China’s Synthetic Natural Gas Revolution, p. 853
Beijing has thus far approved nine SNG plants with a total capacity of 37.1 billion m3 per year and there were 30 more SNG projects proposed in 2012 with a combined capacity of 120 billion m3 per year. According to local reporting [Chinese], that number jumped to 43 proposals in 2013 with a total capacity of almost 200 billion m3 per year. If built, the 9 approved plants represent 21 billion tonnes of CO2 over 40 years; if all 43 pending approval are built, that number will jump to over 110 billion tonnes. To put that in perspective, China’s total CO2 emissions in 2011 were 7.7 billion tonnes.
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These SNG plants are highly capital intensive and, as such, once built they are almost guaranteed to continue operating for decades. This means that if the international community is to oppose Chinese SNG plans, it must do so now before the ground is broken on these projects. China views these SNG projects as a means to addressing poor air quality in its major cities while utilizing its vast domestic coal resources and decreasing a growing reliance on liquefied natural gas imports.
While it is true that SNG would increase China’s energy security, it must be stressed that the climatological cost of this security is far too high.
By. Rory Johnston