China’s use of coal has more than doubled in the last decade and is likely to increase even more (Earth Policy Institute, 2011). Balancing energy, water, and pollution issues, coal is part of an intricate chess match—perhaps “go match” would be a better metaphor when discussing Asia—through which China continues its incessant growth. Indeed, China already consumes about half of the global coal supply. Coal’s complexities and impacts were the subject of a recent forum, The Thirsty King: Digging into the Water Footprint of China’s Coal, at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. While China has the sixth largest water supply in the world, its huge population dilutes this volume; the country has only 2,000 cubic meters of water per person, a quarter of the world’s average, according to Dr. Pei Liu of Tsinghua University. About a quarter of its water resources go to industrial use, of which half is for coal, which sucks away at this vital resource.
Although it has international impacts, water use is really a regional issue, according to Liu. Coal’s viability is always linked to regional availability of water. Water is needed for mining and to make coal plants run; yet in China, the distribution is uneven, with coal reserves largely in the northeast and water in the southern part of the country. Thus, despite large reserves, China imports coal to feed its growing industry, notably steel and iron. For energy- security reasons, China is also looking into liquefied coal to replace oil. To provide all of this, domestic Chinese coal is not enough, not only because of lack of water but due to a limited and convoluted transportation network within the country. Indeed, in 2009 China ceased being a net coal exporter and in 2011 passed Japan as the number one global importer. Over a third of these imports are from Indonesia, while Australia, Mongolia, and South Africa are also major sources. Future viability depends largely on the water availability in these countries, according to Dr. Kevin Jianjun Tu of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
China is working hard to reduce coal’s water footprint. Technical improvements could lessen water use “by one order of magnitude,” says Liu. Indeed, water intensity has decreased by over 20% from 2000 to 2005. Air cooling, for instance, could replace much water, and changes in coal washing could reduce water usage, but not enough to meet Chinese government targets, says Liu. China has also been aggressively pursuing alternative energy, notably wind power. Tu describes a “continuous move to more efficient generation,” including nuclear, wind, hydro, and gas (production of solar panels in China is for export, since, without heavy government subsidies, solar is not economically competitive). Geothermal and concentrated solar power plants also have a large water footprint, while natural gas in China is harder to come by than in the United States. In the long term, renewables might provide most of China’s energy, but for the foreseeable future it will be coal, much of it imported.
This burgeoning use of coal is a long-term problem for the planet, particularly with China having overtaken the United States as the number one emitter of greenhouse gases. However, in China, as in most of the world, short- and medium-term growth trumps long-term environmental impacts. After all, the Chinese can argue that the United States has long benefited from its high living standard, which, per capita, remains well above that of their own. In such a “tragedy of the commons” situation, one can always blame others. Of course, China has made great efforts in renewables, but it won’t be nearly enough if its economy continues to grow. Another possibility is “clean coal” that employs carbon capture and storage (CCS). However, because CCS is water intensive, “the future of CCS in China is still highly uncertain,” according to Tu. In reality, it seems to be water resources rather than greenhouse-gas worries that will be the limiting factor for coal use.
In the United States, it is the availability of a cheap substitute, namely natural gas, that is responsible for a decline in coal use. Coal plants are rapidly closing, pushed also by a well-organized Sierra Club campaign. Coal has plummeted from 50% of the U.S. electricity supplied four years ago to 40% today, and is expected to be down to 30% by 2020 (USA Today, 2012). Ideally, from a sustainability standpoint, the United States should be moving at utmost speed with renewable projects, such as offshore wind off the east coast and large solar and geothermal projects in the west, plus an enhanced electrical grid to dispatch this energy where it’s needed. However, the cheapness of natural gas has usurped such projects—while gas is much better than coal, it still has a greenhouse-gas footprint. And an increasing amount of the natural gas will be coming from hydrofracking projects that have been hastily shoved through without proper environmental review and may be leaking the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Yet coal may continue to be mined...for export to China. Indeed, it might be China that saves the American coal industry. Again, water is important. On one hand, Tu believes that, given its water footprint and pollution issues, it doesn’t make sense for the United States to continue with coal. On the other hand, he says, it might be better, from a global environmental perspective, to dig up coal in the United States than in countries with worse environmental standards. The question of whether to build additional ports on the west coast of the United States to ship coal is being hotly contested by environmental groups. Yet, regardless of the American environmental movement, China will continue to import coal from willing suppliers around the world.
The real problem is that China—like most of the world—needs to move beyond a mentality of incessant growth. Is change possible? Because the panel discussing coal issues was extremely knowledgeable, impressive, and aware of environmental tradeoffs, I’d like to say that I feel our planet is in good hands with such policy makers. But I can’t, because there is no way China can accomplish its goal of massive growth without environmentally untenable consumption of coal. Even with increased use of renewables, China will get down to perhaps 55 or 60% of its energy use from coal by 2050, according to Tu. This will be far too much for the planet. Unless the vast majority of climatologists are wrong about global warming, we will drastically alter ecosystems and weather patterns, making life far more difficult for humans.
Regardless of how much the West is to blame, China still has to stop. While it might seem presumptuous for me as a citizen of the United States, with its huge per capita ecological footprint, to make this assertion, I’m doing so anyway. We are all going to have to learn to do more with less; otherwise, we will all suffer. The chess or go contest that opened this blog is the wrong metaphor—we are not merely pieces in a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers. We are all in this together, although few act like we are.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature (State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.