Zhou Dadi, director general (emeritus) of the Energy Research Institute at China’s National Development and Reform Commission, recently spoke at a panel discussion sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Zhou boasted that China has set aggressive short-term goals for improved energy efficiency and that his country understands that it needs to make significant reductions of CO2 in the future. This is a remarkable statement considering that China installed over 100 GW of new coal-fired generation in 2006 and another 75 GW in 2007. To put those numbers into their proper perspective, the entire U.S. fleet of coal-fired plants is right at 335 GW.

Zhou sang a familiar refrain when specific CO2 reduction program details were discussed: You owe us whatever help we need to make the transition to a low-carbon future (translation: send money and technology), it’s really all your fault we’re in this situation anyway, and we have big plans for renewables. Let me explain.

The Gift of Technology

Zhou’s comments made it clear that China earnestly covets our technology and expertise to develop the extensive carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) program they believe will be necessary in the future. It’s hard to differentiate between “wants” and “needs” in these situations, but I’m sure the western world will be more than happy to “export” expensive technology and experience—much as the nuclear industry has been willing to export technology and local content to secure an order for new nuclear plants. We have a history of exporting critical manufacturing technology to China over the years, from semiconductors to gas turbines.

Western countries are just now beginning pilot tests of postcombustion carbon-capture technologies, although many promising technologies are still in the laboratory. Sequestration trials of any significant size are years away, even though the Department of Energy has been generous with sequestration-development projects of late.

CCS technologies under serious development are unproven at a utility scale and are unlikely to be commercially available for a decade, assuming the early pilot tests are successful. What China is telling us is this: We’re interested in CCS technology when you have proven, utility-scale systems, assuming you will give us the CCS technology. In the meantime, we’ll continue to corner the world’s market for new coal-fired plants.

The Gift of Gab

The expected blame-shifting to the U.S. and its carbon emissions quickly followed. Zhou pointed out that “the U.S. emits roughly three times China’s per capita emissions while using six times more energy per capita.” Zhou went on to note that China’s “consumption [of fossil fuels] is increasing, and we emit more—much more—carbon than other developing countries, and we now are at the same level as the U.S.”

This familiar argument should get traction only when China is actually making a concerted effort to reduce its carbon emissions. We Americans seem more than willing to apologize for our affluence and strong economy. Our long deliberations over climate change legislation are mistakenly viewed as a failure when they’re really the source of our democracy’s strength and vitality.

Conversely, China wants to be thought of as a developing country when it’s convenient, but its actions in the world’s markets and its white-hot economy prove otherwise.

The Gift of Hope

Finally, China’s power planners need to get their public numbers consistent. Zhou said that “China has set a goal to generate 10% of its renewable power, including hydropower, by 2010 and 50% of China’s electricity by 2020.” However, a September 2007 press release by the Chinese government noted the government’s goal was 3% renewables by 2020.

I find Zhou’s comments fascinating, not because of their inconsistency but because they are factually misleading. Seventeen percent of China’s power was generated by hydroelectric plants in 2006—half of the percentage generated from hydro in 1984. There are a dozen mega-scale hydro projects under development in China that will add to the country’s installed 145-GW hydroelectric power base, such as the 22.5-GW Three Gorges project scheduled for completion in 2011. However, none of these projects is on the scale of China’s coal-fired power plant building binge. A 50% renewable energy goal by 2050 doesn’t seem reasonable, but it’s just what the western world wants to hear.

—Dr. Robert Peltier, PE, Editor-in-Chief