Policy meant to reduce emissions from coal mines in China is falling far from the mark, new research reveals.

Canary in coal mine.

Canaries were once regularly used in coal mining as an early warning system. Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners.
Image credits Michael Sonnabend / Flickr.

Chinese coal mining operations have produced increasing levels of methane emissions since 2010, a new study reports. These results show that the government’s efforts to curb emissions aren’t working as intended.

Business as usual

Back in 2010, the Chinese government passed new policy meant to reduce emissions of methane produced during the mining process to limit the industry’s ecological footprint. Companies were required to either utilize or flare (burn) methane released inside coal mines. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the best-known greenhouse gas, persists in the atmosphere for longer than methane (CH4). However, methane (CH4) is the second-ranking anthropogenic greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential 28 times greater than that of carbon dioxide (CO2) on a mass basis.

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The move was quite ambitious. China’s twelfth Five Year Plan specified that 5.6 teragrams (one teragram equals one million kilograms, or one thousand tons) of the methane produced by the country’s coal mines should be tapped or burned by 2015. Targets for 2020 called for even higher quantities to be used in such ways. China’s government also called for coal use in the national energy mix to decrease from 64% (in 2015) to about 58% by 2020 and scaled back plans for new coal power plants — all of which should indirectly reduce methane emissions by reducing coal use.

A new paper led by Scot Miller, an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, United States, estimated methane emissions in China using satellite data from between 2010 and 2015. According to their data, the country’s methane emissions didn’t dip under the new policy — instead, they increased.

The team estimates that emissions rose by roughly 1.1 teragrams of methane per year during the study period, the team estimates. Overall, methane emissions followed a business-as-usual scenario, they say. The team also notes that coal production increased steadily over the study period, while cattle counts and rice production (two other major sources of methane emissions) remained relatively steady. The country’s coal mining industry contributes around one-third (roughly 33%) of its total anthropogenic methane emissions, the team estimates.

Pooling all this data together suggests that the Chinese government’s efforts failed to produce a detectable decrease or decline in methane emissions associated with coal production, the team writes. They also conclude that it’s unlikely the country met the ambitious regulatory target it set for 2015.

The paper “China’s coal mine methane regulations have not curbed growing emissions” has been published in the journal Nature.