CHANGE IN THE AIR

‘Dra­matic im­prove­ment’ as use of more nat­u­ral gas, and less coal, brings more blue skies dur­ing win­ter

China Daily European Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - By DAVID BLAIR david­blair@chi­nadaily.com.cn

“The dra­matic im­prove­ment in air qual­ity mainly re­sulted from ef­fec­tive and ex­tra-strict con­trols on emis­sions and ad­van­ta­geous weather to dis­perse pol­lu­tants.” LI XIANG di­rec­tor of air qual­ity man­age­ment at the cap­i­tal’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Bureau

China’s use of nat­u­ral gas surged by 19 per­cent in 2017, as ar­eas across north­ern China switched to this rel­a­tively clean fos­sil fuel and away from highly pol­lut­ing coal in res­i­den­tial heat­ing and in­dus­trial uses, ac­cord­ing to data from the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion.

This en­abled Bei­jingers and those in sur­round­ing ar­eas to en­joy many clear, blue-sky days this past win­ter, in sharp con­trast with the heavy air pol­lu­tion seen just a year ago.

In­creased use of nat­u­ral gas is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of plans to reach the na­tional pri­or­ity goals of cre­at­ing an eco­log­i­cal civ­i­liza­tion and higher-qual­ity growth. Th­ese goals were stressed at the re­cent two ses­sions meet­ings of the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress and the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence in Bei­jing.

Air pol­lu­tion in north­ern China is usu­ally worse in the win­ter, but this past win­ter saw un­prece­dented im­prove­ment. Largely due to the pol­icy de­ci­sion to shift to nat­u­ral gas for heat­ing and many in­dus­trial uses, the av­er­age con­cen­tra­tion in Bei­jing of the most haz­ardous small par­tic­u­late mat­ter, PM 2.5, fell in Jan­uary by 70 per­cent year-on-year to 34 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic meter, the Bei­jing En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Bureau said in a state­ment. It was the first time the fig­ure was un­der the na­tional stan­dard safe level of 35, the bureau said. How­ever, this month has seen many days of high air pol­lu­tion, although com­ing weeks are fore­cast to be clear.

From Oc­to­ber to Jan­uary, all 28 cities in the Bei­jing-Tian­jin-He­bei re­gion, also known as Jing-Jin-Ji, and sur­round­ing ar­eas saw their win­ter air qual­ity im­prove. For ex­am­ple, Shi­ji­azhuang, the cap­i­tal of He­bei prov­ince, saw a de­crease of 52.4 per­cent. Jin­ing in neigh­bor­ing Shan­dong prov­ince saw the small­est de­crease, 8.4 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the min­istry.

“The dra­matic im­prove­ment in air qual­ity mainly re­sulted from ef­fec­tive and ex­tra-strict con­trols on emis­sions and ad­van­ta­geous weather to dis­perse pol­lu­tants,” says Li Xiang, di­rec­tor of air qual­ity man­age­ment at the cap­i­tal’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Bureau. Re­stric­tions cov­ered many sources, such as fac­to­ries, ve­hi­cles and the burn­ing of coal, she says, adding that more than 11,000 pol­lut­ing com­pa­nies were closed or moved.

In 2013, Premier Li Ke­qiang an­nounced goals to re­duce pol­lu­tion through­out the coun­try. This was a fun­da­men­tal change of di­rec­tion from the pre­vi­ous em­pha­sis solely on rapid GDP growth. Since then, poli- cies to shift to­ward cleaner in­dus­try and energy brought down the av­er­age con­cen­tra­tion of PM2.5 by al­most 40 per­cent from 2013 in the Jing-JinJi re­gion. In Bei­jing, the av­er­age con­cen­tra­tion of PM2.5 went down from 89.5 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic meter in 2013 to 58 mcg per cu m for the en­tire year of 2017 — be­low the tar­get of 60 set out when the cam­paign was launched and 36 per­cent be­low the 2013 level of 90. Through­out China, 338 cities saw an av­er­age re­duc­tion of 6.5 per­cent from 2016 lev­els.

Re­cent re­search by the Energy Pol­icy In­sti­tute of Chicago es­ti­mates that the re­duc­tions in air pol­lu­tion since 2013 add 3.3 years to life ex­pectancy in Bei­jing and, in He­bei prov­ince, 4.5 years in Baod­ing and 5.3 years in Shi­ji­azhuang.

Win­ter short­ages

This year’s rapid shift from coal to nat­u­ral gas has led to short­ages. Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion, around 100,000 fam­i­lies and some schools tem­po­rar­ily lacked heat in De­cem­ber. The gov­ern­ment stepped in with a com­bi­na­tion of mea­sures, in­clud­ing al­low­ing some ad­di­tional use of coal and mov­ing nat­u­ral gas from in­dus­trial uses to res­i­den­tial and from south­ern China to the north. The Na­tional De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion also or­dered Bei­jing to restart a coal-fired power plant that had been shut down in March last year.

Nat­u­ral gas prices soared in De­cem­ber. The price of liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas in China jumped from 4,000 yuan ($605; 510 eu­ros; £445) per metric ton to more than 10,000 yuan per ton. How­ever, the price was brought down to 5,613.6 yuan per ton by mid-Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to data from the Na­tional Bureau of Sta­tis­tics.

Han Xiaop­ing, chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer of China Energy Net Con­sult­ing, said the cur­rent nat­u­ral gas short­age is due to in­suf­fi­cient do­mes­tic gas re­sources and the lack of dis­trib­uted gas stor­age in­fra­struc­ture, es­pe­cially un­der­ground stor­age tanks.

In ad­di­tion to build­ing more nat­u­ral gas in­fra­struc­ture, the strat­egy for alle­vi­at­ing fu­ture short­ages is to con­cen­trate nat­u­ral gas use in res­i­den­tial and in­dus­trial uses, where it makes the most dif­fer­ence in re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion. The modern ul­tra-su­per­crit­i­cal coal-fired elec­tri­cal power plants that China is build­ing are not as clean as nat­u­ral gas tur­bines, but they are far cleaner than the very small burn­ers, so it is seen as mak­ing sense to con­cen­trate coal mostly in elec­tri­cal power gen­er­a­tion, as is now done in de­vel­oped coun­tries.

Lauri Myl­lyvirta, a coal and air pol­lu­tion ex­pert at Green­peace in Bei­jing, says: “Shift­ing small boil­ers or house­hold heat­ing from coal to gas def­i­nitely leads to big air qual­ity gains. That is the sec­tor where nat­u­ral gas makes most sense in China. If you look at what hap­pened in the last win­ter, the lo­cal poli­cies were very fo­cused on gas. In the next years, the pol­icy is more bal­anced be­tween geo­ther­mal, biomass, elec­tric heat­ing and gas. I def­i­nitely think that that broader mix, in­clud­ing emis­sions­free sources as well, will be bet­ter and might avoid some of the prob­lems we saw this win­ter.”

He also says that the gov­ern­ment’s 2021 heat­ing plan, which stiff­ens build­ing in­su­la­tion stan­dards, will re­quire retrofitting the in­su­la­tion of ru­ral houses, so gas de­mand from heat­ing will de­cline. This ties in with the broader pol­icy of up­grad­ing in­dus­trial trans­for­ma­tion.

“If you think about where China is at right now, there is a need to scale down con­struc­tion and the re­liance on in­fra­struc­ture projects and real es­tate to drive growth. At this point, train­ing some of the peo­ple in the con­struc­tion sec­tor to do retrofits would make an enor­mous amount of sense,” Myl­lyvirta says.

Fewer ac­ci­dents, too

The most direct ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the switch from coal to nat­u­ral gas for ru­ral heat­ing and in­dus­try are the vil­lagers and work­ers who no longer have to work with coal or breathe its emis­sions.

Michal Mei­dan, vice-pres­i­dent for re­search at Energy As­pects, a Lon­don-based energy con­sult­ing com­pany, says: “Nat­u­ral gas is a big im­prove­ment over coal in terms of pol­lu­tion but also in terms of worker safety. Worker ac­ci­dents and min­ing ac­ci­dents all have been ram­pant and a source of con­cern for many years. By switch­ing to nat­u­ral gas, you get fewer ac­ci­dents in the in­dus­trial work­place. You don’t need the big piles of coal you did to fuel fur­naces.”

Myl­lyvirta, of Green­peace, says: “In the win­ter, we know that heat­ing is an im­por­tant source of out­door pol­lu­tion af­fect­ing cities and so on. But the big­gest health im­pact of heat­ing with coal is the in­door pol­lu­tion of peo­ple liv­ing in houses where coal is used for heat­ing and cooking. Bei­jing’s av­er­age PM2.5 is now around 60 (mi­cro­grams per cu­bic meter). If you heat with coal, you eas­ily have sev­eral hun­dreds or even more than 1,000 in­side your house.”

Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, lo­cal smog in gen­eral — which leads to in­creased risk of stroke, heart dis­ease, asthma, and lung can­cer — con­sists of sul­fur diox­ide, ni­tro­gen ox­ides, and dust and other par­ti­cles. Also, car­bon diox­ide emis­sions lead to global warm­ing, though they are not lo­cally harm­ful.

Sul­fur diox­ide is cre­ated mostly by burn­ing coal. Ni­tro­gen ox­ides, and the ground-level ozone that is cre­ated when they in­ter­act with sun­light, come mostly from mo­tor ve­hi­cles. Dust and other par­ti­cles are made air­borne largely by con­struc­tion, truck traf­fic or wind from desert ar­eas.

Nat­u­ral gas is much cleaner than coal, both glob­ally and lo­cally. Lo­cally, it pro­duces al­most no sul­fur diox­ide and less ni­tro­gen ox­ides than is cre­ated by gaso­line or diesel en­gines.

Re­cent anal­y­sis by a team at Pek­ing Univer­sity’s Guanghua School of Man­age­ment con­cluded that, by the end of 2017, the switch from coal to nat­u­ral gas and elec­tric­ity in the Bei­jing area was suc­cess­ful in nearly elim­i­nat­ing the sul­fur diox­ide pol­lu­tion from coal, but lit­tle progress had been made against ni­tro­gen ox­ides.

Chen Songxi, a pro­fes­sor at Guanghua, de­scribed the con­clu­sions of a forth­com­ing pub­li­ca­tion: “The move from coal to nat­u­ral gas is re­flected in the dra­matic, roughly 50 per­cent, falls in sul­fur diox­ide lev­els through­out the re­gion since 2013. This was true in highly in­dus­tri­al­ized towns as well as in Bei­jing. Bei­jing’s level al­ready reached sin­gle dig­its in 2016, in the sum­mer and spring, which is very close to Euro­pean cities.

Liu Baox­ian, deputy di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing En­vi­ron­men­tal Mon­i­tor­ing Cen­ter, says, “The av­er­age an­nual con­cen­tra­tion of sul­fur diox­ide saw a his­tor­i­cal low of only 8 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic meter” — far be­low the na­tional stan­dard of 60.

On the other hand, Chen says, “The other com­po­nent of PM2.5 is ni­tro­gen ox­ides, mostly from car emis­sions. We have seen lit­tle change in it. The other thing we see in the re­gion is that the ozone level has been go­ing up sig­nif­i­cantly. The num­ber of cars in Bei­jing has pretty much lev­eled off but is not be­ing de­creased.”

Sup­ply sources

The win­ter of 2017 was a per­fect storm for nat­u­ral gas. For ex­am­ple, gas ship­ments from Turk­menistan fell by 32 per­cent from Septem­ber to Novem­ber, which could not be made up by vol­ume from Uzbek­istan and Kaza­khstan, ac­cord­ing to China’s cus­toms au­thor­ity. In ad­di­tion, a large Sinopec liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas ter­mi­nal in Tian­jin did not be­come ready for com­mer­cial ship­ments un­til this month.

Do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion of nat­u­ral gas in­creased by 10.5 per­cent, while im­ports made up the dif­fer­ence, grow­ing by 28.9 per­cent. As of 2016, China’s gas came from 60 per­cent do­mes­tic pro­duc­tion and 40 per­cent im­ports, but the cen­tral gov­ern­ment ex­pects im­ports to grow to 50 per­cent by 2020.

Im­ports con­sist of liq­uid nat­u­ral gas, im­ported by ship, and pipe­lines, cur­rently mostly from Cen­tral Asian coun­tries. A new pipe­line from Rus­sia is ex­pected to bring nat­u­ral gas to North­east China and to Shang­hai by 2020. How­ever, LNG is abun­dantly avail­able and can pro­vide flex­i­ble sup­ply — es­pe­cially once re­ceiv­ing ter­mi­nals and un­der­ground stor­age ca­pac­ity are com­pleted.

In 2017, LNG took a big­ger share of the im­ports. China im­ported 68 mil­lion metric tons in 2017 — of which 38 mil­lion tons was LNG and 30 mil­lion tons was from pipe­lines. The pre­vi­ous year, the to­tal was 54 mil­lion tons, of which 26 mil­lion tons was LNG and 27 mil­lion tons from pipe­lines, ac­cord­ing to Mei­dan, of Energy As­pects.

China’s LNG im­ports sur­passed those of South Korea to be­come the world’s sec­ond-largest af­ter Ja­pan. Ac­cord­ing to Marc How­son, di­rec­tor of the LNG mar­ket at S&P Global Platts, a fur­ther in­crease to 50 mil­lion metric tons is ex­pected in 2018. Aus­tralia is the ma­jor sup­plier, fol­lowed by Qatar, Malaysia, In­done­sia and Pa­pua New Guinea.

The US Energy In­for­ma­tion Agency es­ti­mates that China has huge sup­plies of un­con­ven­tional shale gas, about equal to those of the US and Canada com­bined. How­ever, ex­trac­tion of that gas is still in the early stages.

“Sinopec is de­vel­op­ing shale with quite good re­sults in Chongqing, pro­duc­ing 5 bil­lion to 7 bil­lion cu­bic me­ters of gas, quite a good ac­com­plish­ment,” says Mei­dan. “How­ever, the ge­ol­ogy is still un­clear, and there­fore the tech­no­log­i­cal needs and the pric­ing en­vi­ron­ment are all open ques­tions. Even the US shale rev­o­lu­tion that es­sen­tially took off in 2000 and reached a dra­matic in­crease in out­put within five years was al­most 20 years in the mak­ing — thou­sands of wells had been drilled by pri­vate firms, backed by var­i­ous gov­ern­ment in­cen­tive schemes. And when shale took off, nat­u­ral gas prices were high enough to sus­tain de­vel­op­ment ef­forts.”

Nat­u­ral gas use is ex­pected to grow to 10 per­cent of China’s to­tal energy mix, up from around 7 per­cent now. Com­bined with an even stronger em­pha­sis on anti-pol­lu­tion en­force­ment, it will be a key com­po­nent of a cleaner mix of energy use and up­graded in­dus­try.

Em­pha­siz­ing that air pol­lu­tion con­trol doesn’t con­flict with the effort of de­vel­op­ing the econ­omy and im­prov­ing peo­ple’s lives, Wang Guoqing, spokesman for the first ses­sion of 13th Na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­ta­tive Con­fer­ence, said: “De­vel­op­ment with high emis­sions and pol­lu­tion af­fects not only long-term eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, but also peo­ple’s health. That is not the de­vel­op­ment we want.”

LI XIN / XIN­HUA

Two women were do­ing morn­ing ex­er­cise in Bei­jing’s Tao­rant­ing Park in 2016.

JIN LIANGKUAI / XIN­HUA

The Qinian­dian of the Tem­ple of Heaven Park in Bei­jing is seen in the smog in 2016.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Lauri Myl­lyvirta, a coal and air pol­lu­tion ex­pert at Green­peace in Bei­jing

SONG CHEN / CHINA DAILY

JIN LIANGKUAI / XIN­HUA

The Na­tional Grand The­ater and the Great Hall of the Peo­ple un­der a blue sky in 2017.

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