China’s energy policies must balance air, carbon, and water goals

Written by
B. Rose Huber
B. Rose Huber, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
Sept. 14, 2018

Committed to addressing the country’s severe air pollution, China is attempting a shift from coal to natural gas and is considering a variety of sources, including domestic and imported gas options as well as creating its own synthetic gas from coal.

A team of researchers led by Princeton University investigated the environmental impacts of transitioning from coal to natural gas in China, exploring implications on air quality, carbon mitigation and water stress.

The findings, published in Nature Sustainability, warn that the use of coal-based synthetic natural gas, known by the acronym “SNG,” would increase carbon emissions and water demand, especially in regions in China that already have high per capita carbon emissions and water scarcity. Overall, the researchers find that a switch from coal to other natural gas types does produce air, carbon and water co-benefits when methane leakage, a powerful greenhouse gas, is well controlled.

The paper is among the first to analyze the interactions between air quality, carbon emissions and water use in both energy production and consumption. The paper highlights the need for an integrated, strategic approach when reshaping energy systems.

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