China sets out methane plan, but no reduction target

Experts said that China didn’t want to shut down coal mines and was likely under-counting its coal mine methane emissions

China's energy efficiency goal

An aerial view of the machinery at the coal terminal of Huanghua port, in Hebei province (Pic: China Daily via Reuters)


The Chinese government has published its long-awaited 11-page plan setting out how it will tackle emissions of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

The plan was announced ahead of a US-China climate summit and outlines measures that will be taken to cut emissions from coal mines, rice paddies, landfills and other methane sources.

But it did not include any targets for emissions reductions. This stands in contrast to the over 150 nations who have promised to collectively reduce emissions by 30% between 2020 and 2030.

Experts told Climate Home that China’s baseline estimate of methane emissions was unreliable and a target could invite unwelcome pressure to shut down its coal mines.

Coal’s other problem

Just under half of China’s methane is from its coal mines, as methane gas leaks out of the seams of black rock.

This gas is explosive and dangerous so mine operators suck it from underground mines up to the surface where it damages the earth’s atmosphere, causing climate change.

China’s methane plan says it will “encourage and guide” coal firms to capture more of this gas. It can then be burned to produce electricity, heat the mines or dry coal.

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But, coal mine methane analyst Anatoli Smirnov told Climate Home, the “only real solution to reduce methane emissions is to close coal mines”.

They then must be flooded or sealed, with a pump installed to capture the gas that still leaks and use it for something productive.

Lauri Myllyvirta is the co-founder of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. He told Climate Home that the Chinese government lacks the “political will and buy-in” to start controlling methane.

Since late 2021, he said, China’s priority has been to increase the amount of coal China produces to get the coal price down.

“So any obligations that would cover a significant part of coal mines don’t really fit into that paradigm,” he said, adding “the same goes for oil and gas”.

Bad measurements

About a year ago, China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said that China has “a little bit of a way to go so we can do surveillance and collect statistics as well as verification of our baseline”.

Li Shuo, an analyst at the Asia Society, told Climate Home that “in many of our emitting sectors, we simply don’t know how much methane emissions are there, and that makes setting reduction targets hard”.

But some analysts have accused China of under-counting its  coal mine methane emissions even though they have the ability to report more accurately.

Sabina Assan, an analyst at Ember said that, like many countries particularly in the developing world, China works out its coal mine methane emissions with a formula.

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It guesses how much methane leaks per ton of coal and multiplies that by how many tons of coal it produces.

Assan said China actually does measure the methane released from its underground mines, so it could improve reporting to the UN but hasn’t.

On top of this, China hasn’t reported its methane emissions since 2014 so its figures are out of date.

Myllyvirta said this hasn’t been reported since because China doesn’t want to “own up to the huge increase in emissions since 2014 and the Paris Agreement”.

The International Energy Agency and several other scientific studies come up with similar estimates to the Chinese government’s.

But Global Energy Monitor has done analysis based on the number and size of coal mines, how deep they are and what type of coal they have.

Using these variables, it estimates that the real figure for coal mine methane is almost double what the government claims.

The Chinese province of Shanxi alone, it estimates, emits about the same coal mine methane as the rest of the world.

Read more on: Asia | Fossil Fuels | UN climate talks