China: stoking up action on climate change

Technological developments in the fast-advancing field of clean coal technology, such as integrated gasified combined-cycle power plants, will do more to curb global carbon emissions than an army of politicians, writes Tim Probert.

News that Duke Energy, one of the US’ largest generators of coal fired power, and China’s largest genco Huaneng Group have teamed up to develop clean coal technology must augur well for the commercial development of this burgeoning sector. The leading utilities of the top two global carbon emitters are coming together to develop and share experience of coal gasification for integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plants.

Both Duke Energy and Huaneng Group are currently developing IGCC plants in their respective nations. Duke is building a 630 MW IGCC plant at Edwardsport, Indiana, using GE technology, while Huaneng is the majority shareholder of GreenGen, a 250 MW IGCC project in Tianjin using domestic equipment into which another US utility à‚— Peabody Energy à‚— has invested.

China sees clean coal technology as key to reducing its carbon emissions
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The bilateral agreement between Duke and Huaneng came barely a week after China’s Thermal Power Research Institute licensed its clean coal technology, which turns coal into synthetic gas, to the controversial US carbon capture initiative FutureGen. That deal will mean Chinese coal gasification technology, the same being utilized at Huaneng’s GreenGen, is likely to be used at a US power plant.

Previously at best ambivalent towards action on climate change, China has had a change of heart. At the 2007 World Energy Congress in Rome, I witnessed the disgraced former general manager of China National Nuclear Corporation Rixin Kang boast how his country’s one-child per family policy had curbed emissions by reducing the population by an estimated 300 million.

China appears to have learned that such claims are unacceptable to liberal Western democracies. Last month Su Wei, director general of the climate change department at the National Development and Reform Commission, announced China’s carbon emissions would by fall by 2050. Wei said: “China will not continue growing emissions without limit or insist that all nations must have the same per capita emissions. If we did that, this earth would be ruined.”

This year is set to a big one for the climate change agenda. Environmental lobbyists have high hopes for a global deal on carbon emissions at the UN FCCC meeting in Copenhagen in December. They will get it, and it seems likely that the financial houses will get their global carbon market too.

What they seem unlikely to get however, are hard caps on emissions. Beijing has aleady set an efficiency goal to reduce energy consumption per 10 000 yuan ($1463) of gross domestic product by 20 per cent from 2006 to 2010, and to double renewable energy to 15 per cent of the total energy consumption by 2020 from 7.5 per cent in 2005.

However, despite overtaking the United States last year as the world’s leading carbon emitter, it would be churlish to describe China as a backwards nation when it comes to climate change. It suffers terribly from land, air and water pollution, largely from the burning of coal.

In an effort to reduce pollution and increase efficiency, China’s gencos have installed a fleet of supercritical coal plants, while the government has shutdown many choking, obsolete plants. Furthermore, China’s next five-year plan will include specific targets to reduce carbon intensity.

News that China and the US are working together on cleaner coal may not delight the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, who believe the world can do without the burning of coal for energy. But they should be delighted.

The development of clean coal technology will have a greater long-term impact of global carbon emissions than any commitment to renewables or carbon trading mechanisms. With vast reserves of cheap, indigenous coal in many developing countries, coal power is not going away.

If the Chinese state embraces clean coal technology, drives down its cost and seeks to dominate the sector as it will soon do with solar panels and wind turbines, then it will do more to mitigate carbon emissions than any number of politicians in Copenhagen.

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