China: clean coal “represents the future” by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2009, 10:23 am
Filed under: China, Economics, Environment

This NY Times piece on Chinese clean coal plants is encouraging in that it reminds us, the self-serving pleas of climate-change rejectionists to the contrary, that China is not in fact irremediably opposed to or uninterested in environmental and climate change issues. China is building coal plants that first gasify the coal before it burns, raising their efficiency from somewhere in the 30-percents up to 44 percent. If you burn coal more efficiently, you can burn less coal, and create less CO2:

China’s improvements are starting to have an effect on climate models. In its latest annual report last November, the I.E.A. cut its forecast of the annual increase in Chinese emissions of global warming gases, to 3 percent from 3.2 percent, in response to technological gains, particularly in the coal sector, even as the agency raised slightly its forecast for Chinese economic growth. “It’s definitely changing the baseline, and that’s being taken into account,” said Jonathan Sinton, a China specialist at the energy agency.

But by continuing to rely heavily on coal, which supplies 80 percent of its electricity, China ensures that it will keep emitting a lot of carbon dioxide; even an efficient coal-fired power plant emits twice the carbon dioxide of a natural gas-fired plant.

The philosophical point I found interesting was this one:

Cao Peixi, the president of the China Huaneng Group, the country’s biggest state-owned electric utility and the majority partner in the joint venture building the Tianjin plant, said his company was committed to the project even though it would cost more than conventional plants.

“We shouldn’t look at this project from a purely financial perspective,” he said. “It represents the future.”

For decades, we’ve been averse, in the Anglo-Saxon world, to placing bets on technologies that “represent the future” unless they offer financial rewards in the near to middle term. The doctrine has been that “the future” is determined by the market, and the best way to reach it is to let private actors take different bets on its shape, and see whose bets pan out. Talk of a government energy policy to move the country towards technologies of the future has been met with reminders of Carter’s Synfuels effort. But the thing is, if you look around at almost every other energy technology that was considered “of the future” back in the ’70s, they’re all panning out. France took a non-market-based bet on nuclear power in the ’70s, and as a result they have a relatively non-carbon-dependent economy that will have less trouble adjusting to carbon caps than others. Solar-cell and wind power are now huge and fast-growing industries. In transportation policy, the unheeded calls of futurists to put more emphasis on trains and transit and less on cars and highways would now be paying off handsomely if we’d made them 30 years ago. In short, if we had made government-led bets on these technologies of the future, they would have pretty much all paid off.

We’ve been convinced in the West for 30 years that the legacy of high-modernist mistakes from the era of planned economies shows that experts simply can’t predict the shape of the future. But maybe we’ve been a bit too convinced. The energy experts in the ’70s seem to have done a fairly good job of predicting the future after all. And the great non-democratic technocratically governed society of the 21st century, China, isn’t doing as bad a job of adjusting to environmental imperatives as we think.


1 Comment so far
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At least one counterexample: ethanol from corn

Comment by jsalvati

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