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China’s Black Gold and Global Warming

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
July 5, 2007

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In China, where breakneck economic growth is the norm and energy consumption rises every passing day, coal is king (Bloomberg). Every week or so, a coal plant goes online somewhere in the country. According to Technology Review, China holds about 13 percent of the world’s coal reserves and roughly two thirds of electric-power generation in the country is derived from coal (PDF). The New York Times calls coal “China’s double-edged sword—the new economy’s black gold and the fragile environment’s dark cloud.” In the face of the daunting challenge to control the toxic local pollution that has ensued, CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy writes that “even the burgeoning environmental nongovernmental sector in China discusses climate change only as an afterthought.”

Because coal, unlike oil and gas, has not been “hostage to politics” (NYT), a host of countries, including the United States and Germany, have turned to it for energy security. But coal represents the number one producer of greenhouse gas from fossil fuel, presenting a new challenge for countries awash in it. The upward trend in coal use means enormous problems for global warming. The Christian Science Monitor estimates China, the United States, and India will produce roughly five times as much carbon dioxide as the levels called for by 2012 under Kyoto Protocol commitments. As this Backgrounder discusses, the Bush administration hesitates to mandate emissions reductions, especially if large emerging economies do not.

One potential solution to the pollution problem is capture and sequestration (CCS) of carbon dioxide. A recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the future of coal says CCS is “critical enabling technology that would reduce CO2 emissions significantly while also allowing coal to meet the world’s pressing energy needs.” But research indicates that capturing CO2 from coal plants and placing it in storage is neither easy nor cheap, making it an unattractive option for utilities in both developed and developing nations. The World Wildlife Fund believes there are too many unanswered questions about the technology for it to be an immediate solution. In addition, the best places to store large amounts of carbon dioxide are often distant from the places where it is produced, creating a transportation challenge. So far, CCS projects on a large scale have been employed only three places in the world (Economist).

China recently released a $600 million action plan to “strengthen its strategies to cope with climate change,” which includes increases in energy efficiency, reforestation, and use of technology to control greenhouse gas (SciDev.net) emissions by 2020. But part of China’s toxic pollution problem, experts say, stems from utilities’ resistance to using emissions-control technology, which they believe reduces a plant’s overall energy output. That attitude makes CCS technology a tough sell. Experts suggest developing countries will be unlikely to use CCS unless wide-scale deployment in developed nations helps bring down the costs. At a U.S. Senate hearing last year, Jonathan Pershing of the World Resources Institute said there are almost no development benefits (PDF) to adopting CCS technology, and thus for the foreseeable future developing countries would be “focused on providing electricity access to their populations, rather than devoting scarce resources to COcapture and storage.”

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