Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Analysis
  • Published:

Air quality–carbon–water synergies and trade-offs in China’s natural gas industry


Both energy production and consumption can simultaneously affect regional air quality, local water stress and the global climate. Identifying the air quality–carbon–water interactions due to both energy sources and end-uses is important for capturing potential co-benefits while avoiding unintended consequences when designing sustainable energy transition pathways. Here, we examine the air quality–carbon–water interdependencies of China’s six major natural gas sources and three end-use gas-for-coal substitution strategies in 2020. We find that replacing coal with gas sources other than coal-based synthetic natural gas (SNG) generally offers national air quality–carbon–water co-benefits. However, SNG achieves air quality benefits while increasing carbon emissions and water demand, particularly in regions that already suffer from high per capita carbon emissions and severe water scarcity. Depending on end-uses, non-SNG gas-for-coal substitution results in enormous variations in air quality, carbon and water improvements, with notable air quality–carbon synergies but air quality–water trade-offs. This indicates that more attention is needed to determine in which end-uses natural gas should be deployed to achieve the desired environmental improvements. Assessing air quality–carbon–water impacts across local, regional and global administrative levels is crucial for designing and balancing the co-benefits of sustainable energy development and deployment policies at all scales.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: Gas production and target (potential consumption) regions for mainland China’s six major natural gas sources based on government and industrial plans for 202011,18,23,27,40.
Fig. 2: Air quality-focused substitution (AS).
Fig. 3: Air quality-focused substitution (AS).
Fig. 4: Comparison of net changes in air quality (China’s population-weighted PM2.5 surface concentrations), carbon (life cycle GHG emissions under GWP20, assuming mean methane leakage rates) and water impacts (China’s weighted water consumption) from substituting 30 bcm of gas from various sources for coal under three deployment strategies in 2020.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

Data used to perform this study can be found in the Supplementary Information. Any further data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.


  1. Gies, E. The real cost of energy. Nature 551, S145–S147 (2017).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Zhang, J. F. et al. Environmental health in China: progress towards clean air and safe water. Lancet 375, 1110–1119 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Sheehan, P., Cheng, E. J., English, A. & Sun, F. H. China’s response to the air pollution shock. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 306–309 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Zhang, Q. et al. Asian emissions in 2006 for the NASA INTEX-B mission. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 9, 5131–5153 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Zhang, C. & Anadon, L. D. Life cycle water use of energy production and its environmental impacts in China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 14459–14467 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Macknick, J., Newmark, R., Heath, G. & Hallett, K. C. Operational water consumption and withdrawal factors for electricity generating technologies: a review of existing literature. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Ou, X. M. & Zhang, X. L. Life-cycle analyses of energy consumption and GHG emissions of natural gas-based alternative vehicle fuels in China. J. Eng. 2013, 268263 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Buonocore, J. J. et al. Health and climate benefits of different energy-efficiency and renewable energy choices. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 100–105 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Siler-Evans, K., Azevedo, I. L., Morgana, M. G. & Apt, J. Regional variations in the health, environmental, and climate benefits of wind and solar generation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 11768–11773 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Webster, M., Donohoo, P. & Palmintier, B. Water–CO2 trade-offs in electricity generation planning. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 1029–1032 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Qin, Y. et al. Air quality, health, and climate implications of China’s synthetic natural gas development. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 4887–4892 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Peer, R. A. M., Garrison, J. B., Timms, C. P. & Sanders, K. T. Spatially and temporally resolved analysis of environmental trade-offs in electricity generation. Environ. Sci. Technol. 50, 4537–4545 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Wang, C. Y., Wang, R. R., Hertwich, E. & Liu, Y. A technology-based analysis of the water–energy–emission nexus of China’s steel industry. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 124, 116–128 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Chang, Y., Huang, R. Z. & Masanet, E. The energy, water, and air pollution implications of tapping China’s shale gas reserves. Resour. Conserv. Recycl. 91, 100–108 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Hertwich, E. G. et al. Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6277–6282 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Gingerich, D. B., Sun, X. D., Behrer, A. P., Azevedo, I. L. & Mauter, M. S. Spatially resolved air-water emissions tradeoffs improve regulatory impact analyses for electricity generation. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 1862–1867 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Enhanced Actions on Climate Change: China’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (National Development and Reform Commission, 2015);’s%20INDC%20-%20on%2030%20June%202015.pdf.

  18. National Statistic Data (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2017);

  19. Zhang, C., Anadon, L. D., Mo, H. P., Zhao, Z. N. & Liu, Z. Water–carbon trade-off in China’s coal power industry. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 11082–11089 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Liu, Z. et al. A low-carbon road map for China. Nature 500, 143–145 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Huang, R. J. et al. High secondary aerosol contribution to particulate pollution during haze events in China. Nature 514, 218–222 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Strengthen the Work Plan for Prevention and Control of Atmospheric Pollution in Energy Industry (National Energy Administration, 2014);

  23. Thirteenth Five Year Plan for China’s Natural Gas Development (National Development and Reform Commission, 2016).

  24. China: International Energy Data and Analysis (US Energy Information Administration; 2015);

  25. Qin, Y., Tong, F., Yang, G. & Mauzerall, D. L. Challenges of using natural gas as a carbon mitigation option in China. Energ. Policy 117, 457–462 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. NDRC. Thirteenth Five Year Plan for China’s Energy Industry. (2016).

  27. Dong, W. J. et al. China–Russia gas deal for a cleaner China. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 940–942 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Paltsev, S. & Zhang, D. W. Natural gas pricing reform in China: getting closer to a market system? Energ. Policy 86, 43–56 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Yang, C. J. & Jackson, R. B. Commentary: China’s synthetic natural gas revolution. Nat. Clim. Change 3, 852–854 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Fu, Z. H. Lifecycle analysis of carbon emissions from coal-based synthetic natural gas and comparison with other gas sources (in Chinese). Natural Gas Ind. 30, 1–5 (2010).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Qin, Y., Edwards, R., Tong, F. & Mauzerall, D. Can switching from coal to shale gas bring net carbon reductions to China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 51, 2554–2562 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  32. Jaramillo, P., Griffin, W. M. & Matthews, H. S. Comparative life-cycle air emissions of coal, domestic natural gas, LNG, and SNG for electricity generation. Environ. Sci. Technol. 41, 6290–6296 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Ding, Y. J., Han, W. J., Chai, Q. H., Yang, S. H. & Shen, W. Coal-based synthetic natural gas (SNG): a solution to China’s energy security and CO2 reduction? Energ. Policy 55, 445–453 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Pacsi, A. P., Alhajeri, N. S., Zavala-Araiza, D., Webster, M. D. & Allen, D. T. Regional air quality impacts of increased natural gas production and use in Texas. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 3521–3527 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Chen, Z. B., Qian, F. Y. & Chen, D. J. Evaluation of the use of coal-based synthetic natural gas for haze prevention in China (in Chinese). J. Environ. Sci. (China) 35, 2615–2622 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  36. Song, P. et al. Analysis on the contribution of coal-to-SNG to reducing the discharge of air pollutants (in Chinese). Coal Chem. Ind. 44, 15–18 (2016).

    Google Scholar 

  37. Chang, Y., Huang, R., Ries, R. J. & Masanet, E. Life-cycle comparison of greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption for coal and shale gas fired power generation in China. Energy 86, 335–343 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  38. Feng, K. S., Hubacek, K., Pfister, S., Yu, Y. & Sun, L. X. Virtual scarce water in China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 7704–7713 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Pfister, S., Koehler, A. & Hellweg, S. Assessing the environmental impacts of freshwater consumption in LCA. Environ. Sci. Technol. 43, 4098–4104 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  40. Tang, T. China’s Natural Gas Imports and Prospects Prepared for Energy Research Institute, National Development and Reform Commission, China (2014);

  41. World Energy Outlook 2012. Water for Energy: Is Energy Becoming a Thirstier Resource? (International Energy Agency, 2012).

  42. Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: An Assessment of 137 Shale Formations in 41 Countries Outside the United States (US Energy Information Administration, 2013);

  43. Jiang, Y. China’s water scarcity. J. Environ. Manage. 90, 3185–3196 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Sanders, K. T. Critical review: uncharted waters? The future of the electricity-water nexus. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 51–66 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. Byers, E. A., Hall, J. W., Amezaga, J. M., O'Donnell, G.M . & Leathard, A. Water and climate risks to power generation with carbon capture and storage. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 024011 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. Fouquet, R. Path dependence in energy systems and economic development. Nat Energy 1, 16098 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Karambelas, A., Holloway, T., Kiesewetter, G. & Heyesc, C. Constraining the uncertainty in emissions over India with a regional air quality model evaluation. Atmos. Environ. 174, 194–203 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. Peng, W., Yang, J., Wagner, F. & Mauzerall, D. L. Substantial air quality and climate co-benefits achievable now with sectoral mitigation strategies in China. Sci. Total Environ. 598, 1076–1084 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  49. Klimont, Z. et al. Global anthropogenic emissions of particulate matter including black carbon. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 8681–8723 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. Su, S. S., Li, B. G., Cui, S. Y. & Tao, S. Sulfur dioxide emissions from combustion in China: from 1990 to 2007. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45, 8403–8410 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


Y.Q. thanks the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University for her graduate fellowship and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) for her 2016 Young Scientists Summer Program fellowship. E.B. thanks IIASA for his Postdoctoral Fellowship funding. Y.Q. acknowledges earlier discussions with G. Kiesewetter, Z. Klimont, J. Cofala and P. Rafaj.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Y.Q. and D.L.M. designed the study, Y.Q. performed the research, L.H.-I., E.B., K.F., F.W. and W.P. contributed data for analysis, Y.Q., L.H.-I., E.B., K.F., and D.L.M. analysed data and Y.Q., D.L.M. and L.H.-I. wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Yue Qin or Denise L. Mauzerall.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Tables 1–9, Supplementary Figures 1–10, Supplementary References 1–53

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Qin, Y., Höglund-Isaksson, L., Byers, E. et al. Air quality–carbon–water synergies and trade-offs in China’s natural gas industry. Nat Sustain 1, 505–511 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene