China has become a global leader in building synthetic natural gas plants, but according to a recent Duke study this investment comes with serious environmental costs.
Chinese policymakers have approved construction for nine synthetic natural gas plants and proposed the creation of 40 more. The study found, however, that the nine approved plants will consume over 200 million tonnes of water annually, which could lead to water shortages in the plants’ areas. SNG plants also leave a large environmental footprint, with synthetic natural gas plants producing seven times more greenhouse gas emissions that conventional natural gas plants.
“In 2010, when the Chinese government tried to restrict the SNG development I thought they were reasonable,” said lead author Chi-Jen Yang, technology project analyst for the Center for Global Change. “Earlier this year, when I read in the news that China’s national government has approved another five projects, with many more on the way, I started to think that they are making a big mistake.”
Even though SNGs were originally made to address growing issues of air pollution in China, they have the potential to be far more destructive because of their heavy water use and emission of green house gases.
“China is an enigma,” said Robert Jackson, the other lead author of the study and professor of global environmental change at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “They’re investing more in fossil fuels and renewable energy than anyone in the world, yet their immediate actions are destroying the headway they’ve made in implementing clean energy.”
Although the creation of SNG plants can pose global environmental ramifications, it is difficult to tell whether these environmental problems will affect American-Chinese relations, said William Pizer, an associate professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Given the U.S.’s difficulty coming to grasp with its own carbon dioxide emissions, it is hard to see this becoming a large issue in government-to-government relations,” Pizer said. “That said, this is clearly a challenging development amid global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”
SNG’s are not China’s only option, Jackson noted. Although they may be the most efficient way to combat China’s growing natural gas demand, he pointed out that there are solutions that are more environmentally friendly, and just as effective.
“Mining natural gas is much more efficient than making natural gas from coal,” Jackson said. “A combination of increased natural gas and renewable energy use would be a better short-term strategy, for both China and the health of the entire world.”