Coal-fired power plants produce more than 70 percent of China’s electricity—and its infamous smog and child health issues—recently vaulting China past the U.S. as the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter. In response, the government has launched work on a pilot plant dubbed GreenGen that would eventually capture and permanently store CO2 emissions.

As a first step, a consortium of power and coal companies will fund the construction of an integrated gasification combined-­cycle power plant, in which coal is converted into gas and the pollutants are removed before the gas is burned. The plant, in the port city of Tianjin, would produce 250 megawatts of electricity. Subsequent phases would boost output as high as 650 megawatts, a moderate size by utility standards. After that time, work would begin to capture CO2 from the plant and sequester it in a depleted oil field nearby. Target date: 2015.

In the wake of the U.S. government’s decision to pull the plug on its own carbon capture project—FutureGen—the $1-billion GreenGen plant becomes the world’s leading effort on such technology. But because China is suffering from coal shortages, and extra energy is required to gasify the coal and to capture the CO2, completing GreenGen may prove a challenge. “There’s an argument for doing GreenGen in terms of research and getting experience with it,” says energy technology expert Kelly Sims Gallagher of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, “but from a commercial point of view it doesn’t make sense.” GreenGen must function as a for-profit power plant, so even though Chinese officials agree on the long-term benefit of removing CO2 from the air, the future of climate change may depend on the economic value assigned to that benefit.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "China Targets Cleaner Coal".