China’s Coal Plants Haven’t Cut Methane Emissions as Required, Study Finds

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China, the world’s coal juggernaut, has continued to produce more methane emissions from its coal mines despite its pledge to curb the planet-warming pollutant, according to new research.

In a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications, researchers concluded that China had failed to meet its own government regulations requiring coal mines to rapidly reduce methane emissions, at least in the five years after 2010, when the regulations were passed.

It matters because coal is the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, and China is, by far, the largest producer in the world.

Coal accounts for 40 percent of electricity generation globally and an even higher share in China, which has abundant coal resources and more than four million workers employed in the coal sector. Scientists and policymakers agree that the world will have to quit coal to have any hope of averting catastrophic climate change.

How quickly China can do that, therefore, is crucial.

The Chinese government in 2010 required the state-run coal sector to reduce methane emissions by putting the gas to use — coal methane emissions can be used for power generation, for instance — or by capturing methane from mines and flaring it, which is still polluting, but not as much as releasing the gas into the atmosphere, according to the researchers.

It required that 6.2 million tons of methane produced from coal mining be put to use by 2015.

An examination of satellite data collected between 2010 and 2015 painted a different picture. Not only were the reductions not made, but Chinese methane emissions actually increased by 1.2 million tons per year during the five-year period.

“Our study indicates that, at least in terms of methane emissions, China’s government is talking the talk but has not been able to walk the walk,” Scot Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who led the research team, said in a statement.

The study highlighted the difficulties China faces in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The technology used in China to capture methane from coal mines is sometimes outdated, Dr. Miller said, and it is difficult to build gas pipelines from mines in mountain areas.

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The World Needs to Quit Coal. Why Is It So Hard?

Facing public outcry over air pollution, the Chinese authorities have tried to slow down the construction of new coal-fired power plants, have begun shutting down some old plants and have made their country the world leader in solar and wind power installation. Still, Chinese coal consumption grew in 2017, though at a far slower pace than before, and was on track to grow again in 2018, after declining in previous years.

Coal mining produces both carbon and methane emissions. Coal accounts for about a third of China’s methane emissions, according to the researchers.

China’s global coal operations are as important as what it does at home. Its powerful coal sector is building and financing coal-fired power plants in 17 countries, according to Urgewald, an advocacy group based in Germany that is pushing for a global exit from coal.

China has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002, a huge increase over just 16 years, according to the International Energy Agency.

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