Moving China towards clean coal

Electricity generated by burning coal rose last year, causing climate-change groups to turn more attention to carbon capture and storage (CCS), a largely unproven technology that could be the best way to mitigate coal-fired emissions.

Global hard coal production in 2008 increased by around 200 million tonnes (Mt), according to a market report from EURACOAL, the European coal industry association.The lion’s share of this increase came from China. The country increased its production by 160-170 Mt. Euracoal said that without the participation of China, the USA and Russia (both of which also have abundant coal reserves) “unilateral CO2 abatement efforts by other countries will be useless.”

Any global deal to mitigate climate change – the latest attempt will be negotiated in Copenhagen in December – seems to depend more and more on Chinese participation.

Let’s not cast China as the big bad wolf, though. According to Xinhua, the government news agency, the Chinese government is set to announce plans for a twelve-fold increase in wind power by 2020, bringing its installed capacity to 100-150 GW. By 2020 the government also plans to have 300 GW of hydroelectric power, 30 GW of biomass capacity, and 1.8 GW of solar capacity. (source: PointCarbon)

In China today, however, coal accounts for about 70 per cent of the country’s primary energy consumption. In many cities, this creates the same thick, sooty smog described in the London of Sherlock Holmes and Dickens, in an era when England was passing through its own dirty industrial revolution.

Any prospect of curbing carbon emissions will depend on finding a way to either reduces China’s coal dependence at lightning speed, or burns it more cleanly.

Good news here. The EU commission will ask its member states next month to fund a CCS plant in China to be opened in 2015, five years earlier than previously planned. In return, the EU hopes to persuade China to sign up to emissions targets for its power sector as part of the Copenhagen climate deal.

The CCS plans have emerged from the Near Zero Emissions Coal (NZEC) project, a feasibility study into CCS in China conducted by the UK and the EU. CCS remains an unproven technology, however. If demonstration plants fail to deliver the hoped for 90 per cent reduction in emissions on a commercial scale, coal will continue to burn away realistic hopes to mitigate climate change.