Beijing appears to be getting closer to that goal. "Lower cost structure and short timelines for project approvals and construction provide the rationale for a positive outlook on carbon capture and storage development in China compared to other parts of the world," Levina added. "If this dynamic continues, China has the opportunity to become an exporter of carbon capture and storage technologies."
Already, there are early signs of such a trend. Chinese utility company Huaneng and U.S. company Duke Energy Corp. signed a cooperation agreement this year calling for a study to determine the feasibility of applying Huaneng's carbon capture process at Duke Energy's coal-fired power plant in Indiana.
"Huaneng is a global leader in several areas of CCUS," said Julio Friedmann, chief energy technologist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who helps assess the technology. In carbon capture, the core of this expensive technology, statistics show Huaneng has already managed to reduce the cost to a level that seems beyond some of its peers.
'We capture impurities'
While Huaneng is leading the way in capturing carbon for coal-fired power plants, an industry that is traditionally tied with CCUS, the Chinese coal giant Shenhua is trying to adopt CCUS technology in a new sector: factories that produce chemicals out of coal.
Compared with coal-fired power plants, coal-to-chemicals factories capture CO2 from industrial waste more easily. That is because more than 80 percent of their industrial waste is carbon dioxide; by contrast, the figure is less than 20 percent in the power plants, said Wang Yongsheng, engineer of Shenhua's carbon capture and storage project.
"The difference between coal-fired power plants and coal-to-chemicals factories is that they capture CO2; we capture impurities," Wang jokingly said.
Less work required to capture the same amount of CO2 results in lowering the cost of using CCUS technology, making coal-to-chemicals factories a promising sector to reduce carbon emissions. And they have to.
Due to rising prices of crude oil, a traditional raw material used to make chemicals, the number of factories that produce chemicals out of coal has surged nationwide. So has the amount of carbon dioxide they emit. China's coal-to-chemicals industry currently accounts for 3 percent of the country's total emissions. And by 2020, its emissions could grow four times, if all the applied projects get the go-ahead from the government, said Tian Yajun, a researcher at Shenhua's National Institute of Clean and Low-Carbon Energy.
Policymakers are aware of this threat. The National Development and Reform Commission, China's top-level state planning agency, said in 2009 that all the new coal-to-chemicals factories in China will need to submit plans on how to reduce their future emissions when applying for construction permits.
For Shenhua, that is linked to carbon capture and storage. The company is now considering starting another pilot project in Erdos in order to test the technology on a larger scale.
Hitting the cost barrier
But Shenhua won't go too far. Its coal-to-liquids plant in Erdos emits more than 2 million tons of carbon dioxide each year; only 5 percent of that is being buried underground. What has stopped the company from burying more of the gas or expanding the technology into more of its plants is simply the lack of money.
Already, the buildup of Shenhua's 300,000-ton carbon capture and storage project has cost more than $32 million. And for every ton of carbon dioxide it captures and stores, the company pays $47.
The Chinese government has subsidized part of this investment. But most of the project cost is still paid for from the company's own pocket. To be sure, Shenhua has little intention of pouring all of its profits into carbon capture and storage.