China is by far the world's largest coal consumer. Last year it "consume(d) nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined," reported NRDC's Alvin Lin in May, 2013. Thus, The New York Times editors were heartened to learn "that the government would ban the use of coal in Beijing and other urban areas by 2020 in an effort to reduce the noxious air pollution that chokes many cities." Not only will the prohibition be good for Beijing air breathers but for the warming planet as well.
"Motor vehicles, coal burning, industrial production and dust account for 31.1 percent, 22.4 percent, 18.1 percent and 14.3 percent of Beijing's PM 2.5 respectively. These airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter are blamed for Beijing's smog," according to Xinhua.
However, the solution—burning more natural gas, has its own perils, warns The Times, because of a "particularly misguided plan (that) would involve building 50 large industrial facilities in western China to convert coal into synthetic natural gas." [Also see a description of the plan in a Quartz post here].
"It’s thus welcome news when President Xi Jinping says that reducing pollution will be a priority for his administration," they write. "But the process of converting coal to gas would increase the country’s total carbon emissions and consume huge amounts of water in what are already arid regions."
An alternative to synthetic natural gas should be shale gas, suggest the editors, as well renewable and nuclear power.
The country can also do more to tap into shale gas in a prudent way. By some estimates, China’s shale reserves could be nearly twice as big as American reserves. China will also need to invest more in renewable energy sources and nuclear power to meet the needs of its large and increasingly urban population.