Sparks About Gas

China adopts natural gas to fight deadly smog

 By Robin Wylie
About gas

The clouds of polluted air that smother China’s industrial cities are killing millions of its citizens. In a bid to clean up the country’s air, the government is implementing a rapid switch from coal to natural gas…

China’s smog problem has reached epidemic proportions. The country’s industrial heartland in the north and northeast has some of the most polluted air in the world, with some cities registering levels of PM 2.5, an atmospheric pollutant, almost 50 times the limit recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO estimates that across China, 1.1 million people die prematurely due to air pollution every year.

Time to act

This colossal public health crisis has forced the Chinese government into action, and natural gas is central to their solution.
In 2017, to combat Northern China’s smog crisis, Prime Minister Xi Jinping — who has pledged to wield an “iron hand” against air pollution — implemented an ambitious energy reform, which mandated that industrial facilities and over 4 million homes must switch from using coal-fired heating systems, to ones which use either natural gas (the burning of which emits practically none of the smog-forming particles that are present in coal smoke) or renewable energy.
The plan focuses on 28 of China’s largest cities in the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Henan and Shanxi, which include the megacities of Beijing and Tianjin, and aims to replace over 150 million metric tons of coal by 2021, largely with natural gas.

The gasification program

China is straining itself in order to achieve this sweeping energy shift. Between 2016 and 2017, the country increased domestic gas production by 15.4 percent, to around 12.4 billion cubic meters. Furthermore, in the first 10 months of 2017, China’s imports of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) soared by 48.9 percent to 29.1 million metric tons, making it the world’s second largest importer of Liquid Natural Gas, behind Japan (China was previously the world’s third largest importer).

Blue skyes over the Forbidden City, Beijing: a more common sight? (whatleydude, Flickr)

Armed with these fresh reserves, local authorities have vigorously begun to implement China’s state-mandated gasification program. And they are already seeing results. According to Greenpeace, in the last quarter of 2017, the concentration of smog-forming PM 2.5 fell by an average of 33.1 percent in the 28 Northern cities targeted by the natural gas energy reforms, with a 54 percent drop being recorded in Beijing itself, which the organization attributes in large part to the reforms.
But while China’s natural gas push is yielding environmental benefits, there are signs that the pace of the switch may be too ambitious, even for the world’s second largest economy. The winter of 2017-18 has seen huge shortages of natural gas across China – in December 2017 reaching 40 million cubic meters of gas a day — leaving many people without heating during the icy northern winter. To curb this shortfall, the Chinese National Energy Institution has been diverting natural gas supplies from the industrial sector to provide critical heating for the north. As a result, factories have been operating at reduced capacity, and businesses seeing profits shrink, Reuters reported.
To combat these difficulties, Chinese state petroleum companies have been directed to further increase domestic natural gas production, as well as to step up development of critical gas infrastructure, such as pipelines, gas storage projects and LNG import capacity.

china-natural-gas-smog

Despite the mixed start to its gasification initiative, China is expected to rely increasingly on natural gas in the coming decades. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts that, by 2040, the nation will triple its natural gas consumption, relative to its 2015 level of 19 billion cubic feet per day, to 57 billion cubic feet per day.
To feed its growing natural gas use, China is likely to further tap into its own significant reserves — estimated at between 33 and 56 trillion cubic meters — as well as continuing to increase its imports, primarily in the form of LNG.
As China continues its shift towards a cleaner industrial and residential sector based on natural gas, its challenge will be to achieve this change without compromising its economic performance. This will not be easy. But with the skies over Beijing their bluest for some time, the rewards for pulling off this daring transition are plain to see.

READ MORE: China’s natural gas opportunity by Peter Ward

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.