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Will Smog in China Spur Climate Solutions?

I have read a number of news stories about air pollution in the major Chinese cities recently. A soupy smog of particulates, ozone, sulfur and nitrogen oxides hangs over Beijing, Tianjin and other northern cities. The concentration of particulate matter (PM2.5) in Beijing recently registered at 501 μg/m3, more than 15 times the highest recorded value in Los Angeles County.

Beijing Smog
Beijing Smog

Ex pats are fleeing the country, while the lifespans of people who live in these cities fall. The primary culprits for much of the air pollution are the coal-fired power plants, which produce roughly 80 percent of China’s electricity.

Some of my clean tech colleagues seem to be almost cheering for Chinese smog, though. They seem to believe that the Chinese will be forced to invest in renewables and cleanup their energy sector to address the local pollution. Because it is visible to the naked eye, has a distinctive smell and has immediate impacts on quality of life, smog, unlike greenhouse gases, will spur a clean energy transformation. Or, so some argue.

I love the idea of killing two birds with one stone as much as the next person, but I’m skeptical of this particular application. I worry about the greenhouse gas implications of both demand- and supply-side responses to smog.

On the demand side, I worry that people will react to air pollution by consuming more energy. I was in Singapore recently and stunned to learn that 30% of the households do not have air conditioning — this in a country with the third highest average income and beastly hot (to my Minnesota-born tastes) weather. If I had to live in Singapore without air conditioning, I might never sleep.

Natural Air Conditioning in Singapore?
Natural Air Conditioning in Singapore?

But, a good share of the local Singaporeans seem to think that “air conditioning” involves opening the windows wide and capturing any wisp of a breeze.

As air pollution increases, the natural, low-energy approach to air conditioning becomes less attractive. My colleague at the National University of Singapore, Alberto Salvo, is working on a study that will document by just how much air conditioner purchases and electricity consumption increased in a recent episode of poor air quality.

Similarly, wealthy Chinese are investing in air conditioners, air purifiers, and more people are spending time in the miles and miles of air conditioned underground shopping centers that seamlessly connect with above ground buildings. If the air is hot, muggy and polluted, why ever go outdoors?

But, if smog encourages governments to adopt renewables for energy production, it won’t matter that city-dwellers are consuming more energy. Will that work? I have concerns about the supply side responses to smog as well.

AC.on.buildingUnfortunately, most commercial-scale technologies that remove local pollution from the energy sector create more greenhouse gases. In other words, greenhouse gases and local pollutants are typically substitutes and not complements in the production process.

Consider coal gasification, a process that transforms coal into methane. Power plants that burn natural gas emit many fewer criteria pollutants than coal plants, so turning coal into natural gas and then burning the gas to make electricity can reduce local air pollution significantly.

China currently has one operating coal gasification plant and four under construction. The government recently announced plans to produce the equivalent of more than 10% of its total gas demand using the technology by 2020. In fact, if the gas that was created from the five plants under construction plus four others that are already permitted were all used to generate electricity in an efficient combined cycle natural gas plant, it would produce more electricity than China’s wind turbines.

So, coal gasification will help reduce local pollution and it appears commercially viable, at least in China. Unfortunately, it’s a disaster for climate change.

This study, reports that, “If all 40 or so of the projected [coal to gas] facilities are built, the GHG emissions would be an astonishing ~110 billion tonnes of CO2 over 40 years.” To put this in context, all of China currently emits less than 10 billion tons annually. Gasifying coal to burn in a natural gas power plant can produce almost twice as much greenhouse gas as a coal power plant.

As far as I’m concerned, the only potential silver lining is that it appears much easier to sequester the CO2 emitted from coal that has been first been converted to gas than to sequester the CO2 from a coal power plant.

But, this will involve convincing the Chinese government that they need to address both climate change, by investing in sequestration, and local smog, by gasifying their coal. Unfortunately, there’s no free lunch from addressing smog.

Of course, coal gasification is not the only, nor necessarily even the cheapest, means of reducing local air pollution. Other options include building more nuclear plants, accessing Chinese shale gas reserves and burning gas instead of coal, replacing old and inefficient coal plants with newer more efficient plants that are also fitted with pollution control technology (scrubbers/bag houses, etc.). But, other than nuclear, these will go much further to reducing local air pollution than to reducing greenhouse gases.

So, we need to continue pushing for real climate solutions as we are unlikely to see a silver bullet emerge as the by-product of some other goal.

Catherine Wolfram View All

Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, Co-Director of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Director of The E2e Project. Her research analyzes the impact of environmental regulation on energy markets and the effects of electricity industry privatization and restructuring around the world. She is currently implementing several randomized control trials to evaluate energy efficiency programs.

15 thoughts on “Will Smog in China Spur Climate Solutions? Leave a comment

  1. While we shouldn’t expect a quick “clean energy transformation” or “climate solutions” from smog, we can reasonably expect some positive effects. My colleagues Nam et al (2013) find that Chinese SO2 and NOx regulations would lead to some CO2 (relative to BAU) reductions (enough to inefficiently comply with CO2 intensity targets), via efficiency gains from early retirements of power plants and industrial facilities in particular, reduced (relative) demand, and fuel switching. Under a simulation of a serious long-term commitment to stringent emission caps, Nam et al project a long-term least-cost transition to significantly reduced energy demand growth, and supply from nuclear, wind, natural gas, and bioenergy. However, the scope of the modeling did not include the suggested pathways in this blog post (additional A/C and vehicle demand, increased availability and reduced cost of natural gas from SNG, shale, or imports).

    Nam, K-M., C. Waugh, S. Paltsev, J. Reilly, and V. Karplus, 2013, “Carbon co-benefits of tighter SO2 and NOx regulations in China,” Global Environmental Change, 23(6), 1648-1661.

  2. I believe the answer to the question that is the title of your blog is, “Yes.”

    You point to the most problematic issue for climate in the air quality discussion: coal gasification. It is important to highlight the climate change downside of this option. The proposed plants would also impose significant water demands, and most of the planned plants are in drier parts of the country.

    While it is helpful to point to the climate change burden imposed by coal gasification, I think it is also fair to say that most climate change mitigation measures deliver improved air quality. These include the entire spectrum of renewable electricity and energy efficiency options. This is why when California assessed the local air quality effects of its overall climate action plan – the AB 32 Scoping Plan – it found gains to public health. See the analysis here.

    China’s top energy decision-maker, Minister Xie Zhenhua, has observed: “The cause of air pollution and climate change is the same – the burning of fossil fuels. Many of the policies and measures to solve the two issues are the same, such as reducing coal consumption and controlling the number of motor vehicles,” (China Daily, November 6, 2013).

    There is reason to be hopeful that the Chinese government’s larger energy and climate targets will lead to cancellation of any plans for the expansion of coal gasification. The country has set ambitious targets for renewable energy use and climate, including a target of reducing carbon intensity of the economy by 17 percent over the 2010-2015 period in the 12th Five Year Plan.

    The following wire report gives additional details on new initiatives: China plans to invest 2.3 trillion yuan ($375 billion) in energy saving and emission-reduction projects in the five years through 2015 to clean up its environment, the China Daily newspaper reported on Wednesday, citing a senior government official. The plan, which has been approved by the State Council, is on top of a 1.85 trillion yuan investment in the renewable energy sector, underscoring the government’s concerns about addressing a key source of social discontent. China has set a target of reducing its carbon emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level, and raising non-fossil energy consumption to 15 percent of its energy mix, Xie Zhenhua, deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), was quoted as saying. As part of broader plans to curb pollution, the government will also roll out tiered power pricing for eight energy intensive industries, while sectors that struggle with overcapacity will face higher power tariffs, Xie said. The government will also gradually expand a carbon trading pilot program to more cities starting from 2015, with the aim of creating a national market, he said. Seven cities and provinces, including Shanghai, were ordered by the NDRC in late 2011 to set up regional carbon trading markets.” (Reuters, July 30, 2013).

  3. Your point about private “solutions to pollutions” is a good example of how failure to supply networked or common pool goods (e.g., water or clean air, respectively) leads to inefficient, private solutions (e.g., home filtration systems).

    China is going BIG on nuclear, btw. Watch my blog for some student posts…

  4. Andy Frank Here.

    I am sorry but I think there is a need to address the problem much more broadly. Lets look at the problems and then maybe we can see our way to some solutions.
    1. stop burning fossil fuels. but the fossil fuel companies have all the money!!
    2. start renewable energy programs. But Renewable energies are intermittent and cannot replace the response of fossil fuels by more than about 20 % easily.
    3. generate renewable energy then use it most efficiently. Wind or /solar energy to wheels of a car or truck total efficiency is important and not ‘plug to wheels’.
    4. How to make industrial process run off of renewable electricity
    5. renewable liquid fuel will be needed for ships and aircraft.

    1. to make renewable electric energy supply a constant load even when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining we need electrical energy storage
    2. to have the powerful fossil fuel industry support a reduced use of there product we need to force them to invest into more lucrative use of their product than selling it for fuel and creating all the problems we see today. This product could be to use fossil material to make replacements for wood.. We have this technology, but use only a trace amount of our oil for this purpose.
    3. Start to replant the forests to absorb the CO2 out of the Atmosphere before it is too late.
    4. promote Plug-In hybrid Electric cars .that have enough energy storage to allow it to be used to level the electric grid and to allow the drivers no compromise from their conventional car at the same or lower costs.
    4. start a more serious bio-fuel program with and objective to replace abiout 10 to 15% of the fossil fuel

    Then we can have an integrated system where we generate up to 90% of our electricity by solar and wind and water. and the rest by biofuel. This way we can produce zero CO2 emissions.
    The underlying technology is the Plug In hybrid Vehicle and not the all Electric Vehicle or worse of all the Fuel cell from renewable energy.


    • Your idea about using storage in Plug In electric vehicles vehicles to level the grid sounds intriguing. But I recently read a paper by Lee Friedman (U. Berkeley) who pointed out that the economics of electric adoption are extremely sensitive to off peak electric rates. He further shows that the current off peak rates through out the US, but expecially in California, are way above (even under time differentiated rate structures) the economically efficient marginal cost levels ( which he estimates at 3 cents per KWH in California). So, I am wondering if you have given any thought to this issue. How important would a transformation to more economically efficient marginal rate designs be to the practical realization of the plug-in-EV storage grid integration that you envision?

      • This can be solved if the batteries of the PHEV’s are the size of the Volt or a little larger like say 60 miles instead of 40 miles of AER!! The numbers work if management of the electric grid and charging is done together with the use of bio-fuels. A coordinated society is the trick but to get there means we have to “manage” all these sectors to work together using rules and regulation that work on averages but are not restrictive to the outliers !!


  5. Good reminder that conventional pollution control technologies and SNG are the more-likely response as opposed to renewables.

    The potential for increased A/C use is scary… Another demand-side response would be increased motivation to operate personal vehicles when biking or walking outdoors become more undesirable.

    On the supply side, I would count the use of imported LNG, EVs, and NGVs as additional smog solutions that don’t help the climate much.

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