China must balance air, carbon and water to harness clean energy

Satellite image of pollution over eastern China Credit

Identifying China’s natural gas resources depends on its ability to balance air quality, carbon emissions, and water stress, researchers argue.

China is slowly changing its energy mix from coal fuel to natural gas, but researchers from Princeton University in the US say using coal-based synthetic gas, known as SNG, would increase carbon emissions and water demand.

The researchers’ investigations into the environmental impacts of a shift managed by 2020 suggest the move would generally benefit China’s air, carbon and water, provided instances of methane leakage can be controlled.

Dr Yue Qin, first author of the study and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, said that “assessing air quality, carbon emissions, and water scarcity impact is crucial to capturing potential co-benefits while avoiding unintended consequences”.

The study’s principle investigator, professor Denise Mauzerall, said that while the paper focuses on China, “its general conclusions are widely applicable”.

China accounts for more than half of global coal consumption, and natural gas makes up only 6 percent of the country’s primary energy use. By comparison, the global average proportion of natural gas consumption is 16 percent.

Aside from using coal-based synthetic gas, the researchers conclude that replacing coal with natural gas can substantially cut CO2 emissions as well as water use.

“Ultimately, a full transition away from carbon-based fuels will be necessary to address climate change. In other research we have found that renewable energy provides the largest co-benefits for air quality, carbon mitigation, and reduced water consumption of any known energy sources,” professor Mauzerall said.