China needs to manage its coal-dominated power system to curb carbon emissions, as well as to address local environmental priorities such as air pollution and water stress. Here we examine three province-level scenarios for 2030 that represent various electricity demand and low-carbon infrastructure development pathways. For each scenario, we optimize coal power generation strategies to minimize the sum of national total coal power generation cost, inter-regional transmission cost and air pollution and water costs. We consider existing environmental regulations on coal power plants, as well as varying prices for air pollutant emissions and water to monetize the environmental costs. Comparing 2030 to 2015, we find lower CO2 emissions only in the scenarios with substantial renewable generation or low projected electricity demand. Meanwhile, in all three 2030 scenarios, we observe lower air pollution and water impacts than were recorded in 2015 when current regulations and prices for air pollutant emissions and water are imposed on coal power plants. Increasing the price of air pollutant emissions or water alone can lead to a tradeoff between these two objectives, mainly driven by differences between air pollution-oriented and water-oriented transmission system designs that influence where coal power plants will be built and retired.

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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 request.

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W.P. thanks the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University for her graduate fellowship and the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for postdoctoral fellowship. C.D. acknowledges the funding support of the UK Natural Environment Research Council Fellowship (grant no. NERC NE/N01524X/1). We thank Y. Satoh for sharing water availability data, and K. Feng, L. Liu and X. He for valuable suggestions.

Author information

Author notes

    • Wei Peng

    Present address: School of International Affairs and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA, USA


  1. Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Wei Peng
    • , Fabian Wagner
    • , M. V. Ramana
    •  & Denise L. Mauzerall
  2. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, J.F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Wei Peng
  3. Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Fabian Wagner
    •  & Mitchell J. Small
  4. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria

    • Fabian Wagner
  5. Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

    • M. V. Ramana
  6. Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

    • Haibo Zhai
    •  & Mitchell J. Small
  7. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

    • Mitchell J. Small
  8. Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London, London, UK

    • Carole Dalin
  9. Appalachian Laboratory, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, Frostburg, MD, USA

    • Xin Zhang
  10. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Denise L. Mauzerall


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W.P., F.W. and D.L.M. designed the study. W.P. performed the research. F.W., M.V.R., H.Z, M.J.S., C.D. and X.Z. contributed data and analysis tools. W.P. and D.L.M wrote the initial manuscript and all authors contributed to subsequent revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Denise L. Mauzerall.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Notes 1–5, Supplementary Tables 1–10, Supplementary Figures 1–16, Supplementary References 1–25

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