‘Irrational’ Coal Plants May Hamper China’s Climate Change Efforts

The China Kingho Energy Group’s coal-to-gas plant in Chuluqay, Xinjiang, China, in 2014. Credit Benjamin Haas/Bloomberg

YINING, China — When scientists and environmental scholars scan the grim industrial landscape of China, a certain coal plant near the rugged Kazakhstan border stands out.

On the outside, it looks like any other modern energy plant — shiny metal towers loom over the grassy grounds, and workers in hard hats stroll the campus. But in those towers, a rare and contentious process is underway, spewing an alarming amount of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas accelerating climate change.

The plant and others like it undermine China’s aim of being a global leader on efforts to limit climate change.

The plant, in the country’s far west, converts coal to synthetic natural gas. The process, called coal-to-gas or coal gasification, has been criticized by Chinese and foreign scholars and policy makers. For one thing, it is relatively expensive. It also requires enormous amounts of water, which exacerbates the chronic water crisis in northern China. And worst of all, critics say, it emits more carbon dioxide than traditional methods of energy production, even other coal-based ways.

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