Change in the air


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'Dramatic improvement' seen as use of more natural gas and less coal brings increase in blue-sky days to Beijing and surrounding region during the winter

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 former Ministry of Environmental Protection, now called the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

This enabled those in Beijing and 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 a key part 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, PM2.5, 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, recent weeks have 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 winter air quality improve. For example, Shijiazhuang in 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 tougher controls on emissions and advantageous weather to disperse pollutants," said 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 said, 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, policies to shift toward cleaner industry and energy brought down the average concentration of PM2.5 by almost 40 percent from 2013 in the Jing-Jin-Ji 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) 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, said: "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 emissions-free sources as well, will be better and might avoid some of the problems we saw this winter."

He also said 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 said.

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, said:"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, said: "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, said, "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 said, "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," said 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."