China’s new methane regulations aren’t working

Despite tough new regulations on gas releases from its coal mines, China continues to pump increasing amounts of climate-changing methane into the atmosphere, a new study shows.

The country is already the world’s leading emitter of human-caused greenhouse gases, researchers say.

“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,'” says Scot Miller, assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University and first author of the new paper in Nature Communications.

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, which accounts for approximately 72 percent of the country’s electricity generation. While data show that coal production has increased in China, it wasn’t clear until now how much methane gas, or CH4, has increased.

Coal mine methane, or CH4 that is released during coal mining, is responsible for the majority of coal-related CH4 emissions and is likely the largest human-caused CH4 source in China.

In an effort to reduce coal mine methane, China enacted regulations in 2010 that require mines to capture and use all coal mine methane for electricity generation or heating, or to flare it. (Flaring converts the CH4 into carbon dioxide, which does not warm the climate as effectively as CH4.)

The country’s 12th Five-Year Plan, the communist government’s strategy for economic and industrial development for 2011 through 2015, set a goal of capturing 8.4 billion cubic meters or 5.6 teragrams of coal mine methane by 2015.

The plan also targeted coal mine methane use of 20 billion cubic meters or 13.2 teragrams by 2020. For context, China’s 2015 targets are equivalent to eliminating all methane emissions from a country like Australia or Canada, and the 2020 targets are more than twice that amount.

Satellite data

To examine how China’s methane emissions trended from 2010 to 2015, researchers used data from the Greenhouse Gases Observing satellite, launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency in 2009 to collect observations of atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide.

GOSAT is one of the first satellites to measure methane and carbon dioxide with enough precision and accuracy to provide a robust view into greenhouse gas emissions at the Earth’s surface. The satellite’s nearly decade-long record of observations provides researchers with the opportunity to examine annual trends in greenhouse gas emissions across the globe.

While other studies used GOSAT data to focus on individual regions like India or on individual years, this is the first time researchers used the satellite’s observations to focus specifically on trends in China’s methane emissions.

The findings show that methane emissions in China rose by approximately 1.1 teragrams each year from 2010 to 2015, resulting in about a 50 percent higher level of annual CH4 emissions by the end of the period, an increase that is comparable to total emissions from countries like Russia or Brazil.

Additionally, the increase from China accounts for 11 to 24 percent of the world’s total increase and is consistent with trends prior to China’s 2010 policy implementation, which suggests that the country’s regulations aren’t effective in slashing methane emissions.

Image vs. reality

“China has received a lot of press coverage over the past few years for its efforts to enact greenhouse gas regulations and its efforts to become a leader on climate change, but the numbers show that China’s methane regulations, in particular, have not had any detectable impact on their emissions,” Miller says.

Some barriers to implement the coal mine methane policies include subpar technology that can’t drain the methane in high-enough quality for use and a lack of pipelines to transport the methane from mines to power plants or central heating facilities.

Looking forward, Miller’s research team will examine how China can most effectively implement its methane emission policies and improve air quality.

Additional researchers are from the Carnegie Institution for Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research, and the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Carnegie Institution and NASA funded the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University