Must Read on Chinese Coal Challenge: James Fallows Addresses De-Carbonizing Coal in the Latest Atlantic Monthly

Anyone interested in how China can both use coal and ultimately reduce its carbon emissions should read the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly. James Fallows, who recently spent three years living in China, getting a handle on how things actually work beyond the rhetoric (see his 2009 book Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China), goes deep into the reasons for China’s coal dependence and the way it can be addressed through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

Fallows’ article notes projections on alternative energy growth and the physical constraints to rapidly increasing the alternatives to coal. Given the numbers, he says, coal will be with us for a long time, particularly in China, but also in a number of the other major energy markets (the US, India, South Africa and Russia, to name a few key coal-heavy power sectors). China’s development of CCS provides the possibility that coal can be used without as much impact on global warming, a contribution useful for all these markets.

In his excellent discussion of the need for CCS, Fallows perhaps does not make the case as clearly as he could that improved coal use has to be part of a package that also includes a heavy emphasis on both improvements in energy efficiency and the greater use of non-carbon sources, including renewables and other non-carbon sources. He’s been criticized in Grist for not looking more carefully at the alternatives. However, it is likely that these are not “alternatives,” in the sense of an either-or. Reducing CO2 emissions from major coal users likely requires the full package of options, from efficiency through CCS. After all, whether we consider CCS, nuclear or renewable sources, they all require additional investments and have a limited number of viable locations. Therefore, we would do best to ensure they are used as efficiently as possible (hence investments in efficiency) and large countries like China will need to look at a variety of technological options.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) and the U.S. Climate Action Network, focused on the need for diverse actions to address coal emissions in a seminar we sponsored during the global climate talks in Tianjin last month. For a clear picture in graphs and charts of China’s energy trajectory, see both the talk at this seminar by Professor Jiang Kejun from China’s Energy Research Institute (ERI) and last year’s Human Development Report for China, edited by WRI China Country Director and Renmin University Professor Zou Ji, which focused on low carbon pathways. Both show that China’s emissions will first peak and then decline, but if you look closely at the decline, it is largely the result of projected deployment of CCS technology. It is important, but it is not enough. The largest percentage of averted emissions derive from energy efficiency improvements, and non-carbon energy sources are also important. Without these other interventions, CCS technology would not be able to turn the tide – total emissions would simply be too high. China clearly needs all the options at its disposal.

Fallows features two of the members of the new US-China Clean Energy Research Center for Clean Coal Technology, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Duke Energy. The consortium, of which WRI is also a member, will be working with a diverse group of Chinese companies, academic institutions and research institutes to promote precisely the kind of cooperation Fallows suggests is necessary to speed development of this technology. As Fallows notes, this is an area where the US and China offer complementary experience. The US has more experience in geologicial storage, but the Chinese are moving rapidly in some of the capture technologies. In fact, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), another group Fallows features, has been working to bring together US-China business-to-business partnerships, including the licensing of Chinese technologies to US companies.

The experts from both CATF and Lawrence Livermore are part of WRI’s CCS project, which focuses on the regulatory infrastructure to support CCS and ensure it is safe and effective, an issue Fallows does not address. WRI has been working with Tsinghua University and a team of experts from both countries to assist Tsinghua in developing regulatory guidelines for CCS. These guidelines follow the framework first developed in WRI’s US guidelines work, but are written with Chinese regulatory conditions in mind. For a full discussion of the Chinese regulatory environment for CCS, please see WRI’s recent publication “CCS in China: Toward an Environmental, Health, and Safety Regulatory Framework”.

Fallows focuses on China’s rapid on-the-ground development. A number of us, including our ChinaFAQs network member Angel Hsu, were able to visit China’s most advanced power plant, currently under construction, during the Tianjin meeting. The GreenGen Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle Plant has the potential to demonstrate large-scale carbon capture, and its next phase of development is scheduled to include storage as well. Angel described the site visit and included some photos taken by colleagues from the Natural Resources Defense Council in a recent blog post on ChinaFAQs.