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See Inside March 2011

Coal Fires Burning Bright

With promises to curb CO2 emissions by 2020, China will need more than blackouts to get there

China has won international plaudits for its commitment to green goals. It has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by at least 40 percent per economic unit by 2020 and is also adding alternative energy sources such as wind farms and nuclear power plants faster than any other country.

But the nation is also in the midst of unprecedented economic growth—and an unprecedented surge in the use of energy, which for China means coal. The country burns more coal than the U.S., Europe and Japan combined, the main reason why it is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. “Will China’s carbon dioxide emissions overwhelm the world?” asks Mark D. Levine, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who works in the country on energy-efficiency measures. “That’s the question.”

In China, growth is winning out over any push to go green. A recent reporting trip showed that one of the main problems is a combination of conflicting policies from the central government and a lack of commitment on the part of local officials. Here is where China is falling short:

Clean Coal. Much like the U.S. government and power companies, Chinese officials say the technology to capture carbon dioxide at coal-fired power plants is simply too expensive to add. And coal technologies that might make such carbon capture and storage deep below the ground feasible, such as turning the coal into a gas before burning it, are not favored by at least some of those in charge. “[Gasified coal’s] cost is no cheaper than nuclear power,” says Zhang Guobao, vice chair of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the government agency that sets Chinese energy and industrial policy. But unlike the U.S., China is continuing to build massive coal plants that will be pumping out greenhouse gases decades from now.

New Energy. In a bid to reduce the country’s reliance on coal, the NDRC has mandated that power companies generate at least 8 percent of their electricity from so-called new energy—such as nuclear power plants or wind turbines. But the wind is unreliable: in some provinces, it blows strongest in fall and winter, exactly when coal-fired power plants are most needed for their other output: heat. And while China is building nuclear power plants, the uranium-fueled reactors have not displaced any coal plants to date.

Energy Efficiency. Last November, when China appeared on the verge of exceeding the energy-efficiency targets set for the end of 2010, government officials imposed blackouts in some regions to make sure the country achieved its goal. That prompted factory owners to switch to back-up diesel generators, which still emit CO2, to avoid fines for late deliveries of goods.  China is willing to do “some very irrational things” to meet its efficiency goals, says Berkeley Lab’s Levine.

The Chinese point to a double standard on the part of the U.S. “We have only developed our economy for three decades, and now we face great pressure [to clean up]. That is unfair,” NDRC’s Zhang says. He reaffirmed his commitment to expanding sources of alternative energy, but, he added, “for the foreseeable future, coal will continue to take up a big part of our energy mix.” 

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