Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Thirsty Dragon: Can China Quench Coal’s Thirst?

Via The Wilson Center, a look at whether western China can lower its coal-water risk:

China’s war on pollution and goals to lower carbon emissions are noteworthy as the United States takes a back seat in the global energy transition. Cleaner air and low carbon efforts in China could significantly change the country’s environmental health story and contribute to global efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions. However, China’s energy reforms look less green now than they seemed after Paris in 2015. While China’s rate of increase in CO2 emissions has slowed and the share of renewables in its energy mix continues to grow, the Chinese government’s pursuit of clean air along its east has shifted more polluting and water-intensive coal-fired power development into the country’s west. To continue to lead the way in this “Asian Century,” China must further incorporate water-saving reforms into its energy and environment plans.

Quenching Coal’s Thirst

July 2018 saw the release of China’s newest Air Pollution Action Plan, an update to the 2013 environmental policy that revolutionized China’s approach toward improving air quality by setting small particulate (PM2.5) reduction targets. The 2013 plan led to the closure of the last coal-fired power plant in Beijing, where blue skies are finally becoming more common. However, coal burned in power plants far in China’s coal-rich—but water-scarce—western provinces still provide most of the capital city’s power. Almost60 percent of the water footprint from Beijing’s energy consumption comes from the process of mining and burning coal in two of China’s most arid western provinces: Inner Mongolia and Shanxi. More stringent air emission targets and monitoring are improving air quality in Beijing and other east coast cities, but at a cost of increased water and pollution risks in Western China.

The China Environment Forum has just published its fifth issue in the InsightOut series, taking a deep dive into the potential for science, technology, and policy innovation to mitigate the coal-water risks in Western China. As a country of 1.3 billion—20 percent of the world’s population—China is home to only  7 percent of global freshwater. Yet nearly one-fifth of all the water used domestically goes to the thirsty coal sector. This water risk is particularly prominent in coal-rich provinces in the Northwest that have only 20 percent of China’s water reserves. According to Keith Schneider, the quantity of water China used for coal mining, washing, and power plants could exceed the available water in these regions within a decade. The amount needed has been “so significant that it challenges the country’s capacity to succeed in this decade.”

Gambling with Water

Over the past few years, Chinese leadership has shown a serious commitment to decreasing the country’s energy dependence on coal. This is primarily due to public concerns over severe air pollution and international carbon reduction pledges. Through policies, clear targets, and financial investments, China is promoting clean energy and energy efficiency. From the newest Air Pollution Action Plan, to pledges to invest 2.5 trillion RMB into renewable power generation by 2020, the Chinese government has made a show of closing coal plants, canceling planned projects, and imposing stricter environmental regulations on the roughly 2,300 plants still in operation. In fact, some evidence shows that China has begun to restart some coal projects that were previously halted because the coal plants shut down faster than the energy sector could adapt. Once plagued by coal power generation overcapacity, China’s energy sector now may have too little capacity to keep up with demand.

This historic shift in coal policy may help alleviate pollution in the east, but raises two particular concerns. First, the water footprint of coal, particularly in arid western provinces, remains relatively low on the policy agenda. Second, Western China does not have strong coal reduction policies, leaving it vulnerable to new coal industries. Coal-to-liquids and coal-to-chemicals industries threaten water security in the region.

For example, it is estimated that 70 percent of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region  “faces very high levels of baseline water stress,” and 91.5 percent of power generation facilities (primarily coal-fired) are based in areas suffering severe water shortages. The highly water-intensive coal-to-chemicals sector is also rapidly growing in Ningxia, further straining water resources of the arid region. These water stresses are exacerbated by climate change as average temperatures in North China are rising and precipitation is declining. The South-North Water Transfer Project has been touted by central planners as a solution to water scarcity in the northwest, but it does not solve the high levels of water demand. Rather than relying solely on supply-side management, water planners must address these consumption trends and work to reduce water use throughout Northern China, particularly by the coal industry in the northwest.

Lowering Water Risks  

Technology and policy innovation bright spots are emerging to reconcile economic and environmental goals and reduce coal-water conflicts in northwestern China. China’s ultra-super critical coal-fired power plants use air cooling and require 15 to 20 percent less water than earlier generations of water-cooled plants. The Ministry of Water Resources has passed targets and regulations pushing for better water efficiency from Chinese industries and cities. The Chinese government’s expanding investments into the power grid and continued push for renewables helped expand solar and wind power, which use less water than coal. If China continues to integrate renewables, and shuts down coal plants in western regions, the country would save enough water to meet the needs of 27 million people in high-risk areas by 2020.

InsightOut 5

As the Op-Eds in this InsightOut illustrate, the water-energy nexus is a critical consideration for all regions of China.  As the country continues to fight air pollution and reduce the national carbon footprint, it is necessary to consider water resource concerns when development planning. Water scarcity will only be exacerbated as development and climate change accelerate, and therefore must be integrated into future regulatory and technology decisions.



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