China’s plan to build coal-to-gas plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions may actually exacerbate pollution that in recent years has caused public health scares and driven environmentalists to protest on the streets and online, according to findings published Wednesday by Greenpeace China.
If Chinese environmental regulators approve 50 projects to turn some of the nation’s vast coal resources into synthetic natural gas — a program heralded by some as a means of reducing the nation’s carbon emissions — the People’s Republic will emit over 1 billion tons of CO2 a year, according to Greenpeace. That means the coal-to-gas plants would produce nearly double the emissions limit set by environmental regulators for the proposed projects.
The gas that would be produced by the plants has — in its production and use — 36 to 82 percent higher greenhouse gas emissions than coal-fired power, according to a 2013 study from Duke University. Greenpeace researchers say the plants’ contributions to global warming would be devastating.
“Air pollution brought us a 'Silent Spring' moment here in China,” said Li Shuo, a Beijing-based climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, referring to Rachel Carson's cautionary 1962 book on environmental degradation.
“The public is increasingly aware of environmental degradation around them. This is actually a big reason why coal-to-gas is taking momentum, because it would simply shift pollution” away from Beijing and into remote regions where the plants would be concentrated, Li said.
But Chinese human rights advocates, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said the spring isn’t so silent. Authorities have in recent months attempted to collaborate with environmentalists to devise plans for sustainable, green development. The reason, they say, is that pollution in major industrial cities — in Beijing’s surrounding Hebei province, for example — is too evident to willfully ignore.
Beijing has refrained from curbing widespread protests and Internet awareness campaigns that have cropped up repeatedly over the past year on social media sites such as Sina Weibo.
Environmentalists are hoping for support from environmental authorities.
“The Chinese energy planners still have a chance to put a brake on coal-to-gas before it is too late. They are gradually realizing the risks,” Greenpeace's Li said.
Beijing’s Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control, released last September, cited the coal-to-gas plants as a response to excessive pollution from coal.
But on Tuesday, the Chinese National Energy Administration published a report cautioning against what it called the haphazard development of coal-to-gas plants, saying that they may in fact result in more public health concerns across the country.
The report called on authorities to “resolutely curb the blind development of the coal-to-gas plants.”
Among the plant projects are bids to supply the Beijing area with synthetic gas produced at plants in Inner Mongolia. The plan may reduce some pollution associated with coal-burning in the Chinese capital, but would involve more emissions in Inner Mongolia and would require the arid region to expend precious water resources on producing energy for faraway users, according to Greenpeace.
China has the largest coal deposits in the world. The administration of President Xi Jinping has in recent months attempted to sign energy deals with global producers from Kazakhstan to Venezuela in a drive to literally and figuratively fuel the faltering Chinese economy, which is still overwhelmingly dependent on production. Environmental concerns have in the past prevented China from tapping into its domestic coal resource — what environmentalists have qualified as a “dirty fuel.”