China’s and India’s coal expansion plans have a major flaw, Greenpeace says

A pontoon bridge across China’s Yellow River is used to transport coal to an industrial park.
A pontoon bridge across China’s Yellow River is used to transport coal to an industrial park.
Image: Greenpeace
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Coal is thirsty at every stage of its life circle—from mining, cleaning, and burning to the treatment of coal ash. The world’s coal power plants consume enough freshwater to sustain 1 billion people, the latest Greenpeace report finds.

The report, published today (Mar. 22), is the first global plant-by-plant study of the water demand in the coal industry’s. Globally, the world’s 8,359 existing coal plants consume 19 billion cubic meters of water per year, enough to meet the most basic water needs of 1 billion people. And if all the 2,668 planned coal plants come online in the next decade, the industry’s water consumption will nearly double to 36 billion cubic meters per year, the report said.

Making matters worse, a quarter of existing or proposed coal plants are or will be located in regions where water is being used faster than it is being replenished naturally—what Greenpeace calls “red-list” areas. This means there is not enough water left for the area’s ecological needs, including sustaining ground vegetation and flushing out pollutants in rivers in those regions, the report said.

The water/coal conflict is worst in China. Nearly half of China’s existing and proposed coal plants are in red-list areas, the report found. “China is facing a resource dilemma—wherever it has coal, there is often limited water,” the report wrote. India ranks the second on both lists, with 24% of existing coal plants and 13% of proposed ones in “red-list” areas.

The Kuye River, a tributary of the iconic Yellow River in China’s eastern region, for example, faces a water crisis thanks to its rich coal resources, the report found. In fact, there is a large gap between the amount of water available and the amount necessary for current industrial planning. By 2030, the water demand in the Kuye River basin is expected to increase to 416 million cubic meters, a significant proportion of that related to coal, but the water supply is only at 202 million cubic meters, the report said. China is already diverting more than 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames, to deal with water scarcity.

Canceling the planned coal plants in the red-list areas and replacing them with renewable energy such as solar cells and wind power is necessary to avoid a crisis, Greenpeace says. In China, for example, this could mean saving a water consumption of 1.8 billion cubic meters per year.

China has stopped approving any new coal mines by 2019. The country’s coal consumption began falling in 2014 for the first time in the 21st century, and China has become the top investor in renewable energy. Last month, the Chinese government announced a layoff of 1.8 million workers in coal and steel industries in order to reduce overcapacity.

“Governments must recognize that replacing coal with renewable energy will not only help them deliver on their climate agreements, but also deliver huge water savings,” said Iris Cheng, lead author of the Greenpeace report, in an emailed note. “It’s more urgent than ever that we move towards a 100 percent renewable future.”