Proposed GreenGen IGCC coal plant in Tianjin, China
The US-China duck pancake of climate cooperation, made this week by Presidents Obama and Hu, has left us with much to chew over. But the component that everyone was waiting for -- and that few could be surprised about -- was the announcement on coal. No effort at cleaning the air or reducing CO2 will matter without really addressing the black stuff. So the two countries announced a "21st century coal" initiative, "a program of technical cooperation to bring teams of U.S. and Chinese scientists and engineers together in developing clean coal and carbon capture and storage technologies."
But what does this vision of "21st century coal" really mean, given the big conundrum of carbon capture -- and what's the Chinese translation?The big deals to come out of China this week weren't made by governments, but by private sectors angling for a piece of the CO2 reduction pie. First, General Electric and China's largest coal company, Shenhua made a pledge to make a deal.
No financial details were released of the deal, which will address gasification and carbon capture. In September, Anglo-Dutch oil group Shell made a similar agreement with Shenhua, while North Carolina-based Duke Energy partnered up with Huaneng, another Chinese energy giant, to work on carbon capture, with some backing from the US Dept. of Energy.
Alongside the GE deal, Peabody Energy, America's largest coal producer, bought a 6% stake in GreenGen, a $1 billion coal-fired power plant in Tianjin that will be China's big carbon capture and sequestration experiment. The Chinese version of America's troubled FutureGen project, it's due to come on line in 2011.
No Big News From Beijing
But at the summit, no new actual carbon capture projects were announced, and it's unclear where this fits into the priority list for the US or China. Part of the $150 million US-China Clean Energy Research Center will focus on carbon capture. But the item on "21st century coal" was buried at no. 6 in the Dept of Energy's factsheet, and there's no indication that Beijing is any less hesitant about carbon capture than it was before Obama's visit.
Of course, weaning themselves off of coal anytime soon is considered a economic and political impossibility. Both the US and China are the world's leaders in coal consumption. It's no coincidence they're also the leaders in CO2 emissions.
While the notion of "clean coal" needs to be buried like so many greenhouse gases, it's now widely acknowledged that the only pragmatic way of dramatically cutting CO2 emissions is to capture the carbon and store it.
Many, including the NRDC, the Asia Society and others, argue that China is the best place to improve on the technology because doing so there could not only help stem the country's runaway emissions, but it would be cheaper there than anywhere else. From there, US companies could scale up the technology at home. For instance, Duke is hoping to use what it learns from its Chinese partner at a 630-megawatt facility that the company is building in Indiana.
China's got a few trial CCS projects in the works, including one up and running in Beijing, where an Australian-designed system collects and compresses carbon dioxide that is later used to put fizz into soft drinks. That's in addition to the world's biggest coal gasification program, a program that has already led to a few US-China deals.
China Remains Skeptical on CCS
But Beijing's not buying CCS yet. That's partly because CCS technology is expensive to develop and run, and requires more energy use than a coal plant without CCS. If CCS will be tested and deployed in China, the US will have to pay. But the US hasn't yet said how much it's willing to pony up.
At a meeting on China-US climate change talks at the Asia Society last week, Orville Schell, the group's director of U.S.-China Relations, summarized the world's coming-to-terms with carbon capture, and the challenge of Copenhagen:
It doesn't matter how many PV cells are built, or turbines go up. All of these are critically important but they do not turn the trick. Because whatever happens, for the next few decades, the US and China are going to be burning coal. It doesn't matter who burns it. It's not American or Chinese coal: it's the world's carbon dioxide. We've got to find a way to deal with coal. So what do you do? The only way you actually confront coal is to clean it up.
And the US is broke. But we can start on the sequestration side. It's cheaper, it's a place to start while we drive down the cost of the capture. That has a huge energy penalty, which is why China doesn't want to do it. That's why it wants the rich countries to pay, and the rich countries don't want to do it. But if we can get over these issues, we'll have a much more felicitous meeting in Beijing, and at the UN meeting in Copenhagen.
Scaling up renewable energy, sustainable transportation and buildings is crucial and both countries are making strides that will be mutually beneficial, economically and ecologically. But how the developed world and China address this elephant in the room at the Copenhagen meeting and afterward will determine how successful the world will be at slowing climate change.