The New York Times reports today that Russia and China have signed a thirty-year agreement for the sale of natural gas to China. The deal, which had been in the works for over a decade, was signed while Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping were in Shanghai for a regional security conference.
While the New York Times story correctly notes the political impetus for the conclusion of this agreement in a setting in which Russia's relationship with Europe has been imperiled by events in Ukraine, it is also worth pointing out the significance of the agreement for China's efforts to address its environmental problems. According to the EPA, the use of natural gas for electricity production generates 1.22 pounds of carbon dioxide CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. In comparison, bituminous coal generates 2.08 pounds of CO2 per kWh, sub-bituminous coal generates 2.16 pounds of CO2 per kWh, and lignite generates 2.18 pounds of CO2 per kWh. The natural gas advantage is partially offset by the leakage of methane--the principal component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas--into the atmosphere during gas production and transportation, but, at least in the United States, studies suggest that the offsetting effects of leakage are not great enough to overcome the benefits of the ongoing transition from coal to natural gas.
Natural gas is no panacea for air pollution and climate change; energy from wind, water, and the sun remain far better options than any fossil fuel. Nevertheless, changes that can reduce China's dependence on coal--the increase in CO2 emissions from coal in China between 2002 and 2012 was roughly equal to Europe's total CO2 emissions from coal in 2011--should be welcomed even if the alternative (natural gas, in this case) is sub-optimal.