Bush signs on to help clean air in China, India
U.S.-Germany pact to cut coal emissions
- Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005
President Bush, in one of the least-noticed gestures of his European visit, has pledged to help developing nations such as China and India cut back on their fast-growing output of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming.
Bush signed a pact with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on Wednesday to help poorer countries adopt more energy-efficient technologies in power generation, transportation and industry.
Although the agreement lacked specific commitments for new spending, diplomats and analysts say it could help take political pressure off the United States, the world's largest polluter, and remove a major obstacle to achieving the goals set out in the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement on climate change that went into effect Feb. 16 despite a U.S. boycott.
The Bush-Schroeder agreement "can be very meaningful as a start. It can get the United States and developing countries on board," said ZhongXiang Zhang, an energy and climate policy analyst at the East-West Center, a think tank in Honolulu.
The Kyoto Protocol's weak point is that even as wealthy nations cut back on pollution, greenhouse gas emissions from China, India and other developing nations keep rising at a sizzling rate.
China's emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, are rising at more than twice the rate of the United States, while Germany's overall output is dropping. In fact, China is widely projected to overtake the United States as the world's top source of greenhouse gases by 2025.
"China is building a new 1,000-megawatt power plant every week with old, Eisenhower-era technology," said Douglas Ogden, director of the China program at the Energy Foundation in San Francisco. "They're going to keep building the oldest, dirtiest plants unless we do something. The world can ill afford even one greenhouse gas producer on the U.S. scale, let alone two."
Poor nations exempted
China and other developing nations are exempted from the Kyoto Protocol's rules for emission cutbacks because their governments are afraid the limits would hobble their rise from poverty.
"The European side wants hard targets from the United States and developing countries, which is ... very difficult," Zhang said. "But if they can work together to subsidize advanced technologies ... it would be very positive."
The key to the U.S.-German initiative is the most polluting of major energy sources -- coal.
Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are pressing Bush to join them in creating an ambitious aid program to help developing nations adopt new technologies that reduce emissions from coal power plants and save energy. Blair holds the annual rotating presidency of the G-8, the group of industrialized nations, and he says he will make the proposal a top priority for the group's summit meeting in July.
Huge coal reserves
Although environmentalists advocate the expansion of wind and solar energy production, China and India are expected to continue to rely on their huge reserves of coal for most of their energy needs in the near future. The two countries derive 80 percent and 65 percent, respectively, of their electricity from coal, compared to the U.S. share of 51 percent.
"Coal is really the workhorse for the economies of India and China in the decades to come, so that's why coal is so important for global warming," said Bernd Kramer, minister counselor for science, technology and environment at the German Embassy in Washington.
In the next eight years, China expects to put into operation 562 coal- fired plants -- nearly half the world's total -- and India is projected to add 213 such plants, according to government figures. The United States is expected to build only 72.
For years, the U.S. government has invested heavily in clean-energy research. For 2005, it budgeted nearly $3 billion for research and development of climate-change technology, mostly through subsidies and tax breaks for work on hydrogen fuel-cell developments and so-called clean coal technology, which releases less carbon dioxide.
Hydrogen fuel cells are widely believed to be 15 to 20 years away from commercial viability, while clean-coal technology is already on the market. The most prominent clean-coal method goes by the cumbersome name of Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC. Under the process, coal is turned into a gas, which is then burned in a process that allows carbon dioxide to be siphoned off rather than released into the atmosphere.
15% less carbon dioxide
Plants built with this technology release 15 percent less carbon dioxide and can be combined with a futuristic option called "carbon sequestration," in which the carbon dioxide by-product is injected into oil and gas aquifers underground, eliminating emissions altogether.
What is needed now is not further research but aid to get these two methods to market, say Schroeder, Blair and many experts.
One prominent environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, has estimated that the extra cost of using IGCC and carbon sequestration in all plants being built in developing nations would be just $6 billion a year.
"This amount would be a huge investment in global security, and it is very low compared to the $50 billion that the G-8 gave in development assistance last year," said David Hawkins, the council's climate policy director.
If China, India and other nations start snapping up this new technology, a big winner could be San Francisco's Bechtel Corp., which has already built two coal-fired power plants and two nuclear plants in China, with several more under construction or projected. Bechtel recently formed an alliance with General Electric Co. to develop IGCC power plants.
Amos Avidan, a principal vice president of Bechtel, said China is eager to make its power plants cleaner and reduce the nation's severe air pollution.
'Great potential for China'
The IGCC technology "hasn't yet taken off," Avidan said, "but we believe it can become a mainstream technology in a couple of years or so and eliminate the cost gap. We think it has great potential for China."
Other industry analysts are more skeptical.
"The problem with these leapfrog technologies is they have a well-proven track record of mostly failing," said Dale Simbeck, vice president of technology for SFA Pacific Inc., a Mountain View energy industry consulting firm.
He noted that there are only two IGCC power plants operating in the United States, despite two decades of federal subsidies. One failed attempt was the Pinon Pine power plant, an IGCC plant near Reno completed in 2000 at a price tag of $335 million, split equally between a local power company and the U.S. Energy Department. The plant has been plagued by technical snafus and has never been fully operational.
Simbeck, who has worked as a consultant on China power issues for the World Bank and the Chinese government, said China has enough technological know-how. Its main barrier, he said, is rigid government policies that shield state-owned power companies from competition.
"The Chinese are just telling the West what it wants -- 'Help us build with IGCC, please help fund these with our companies' -- but it's not necessary," he said.
Lee Schipper, director of transportation research for World Resources Institute in Washington, said China's reputation as a big polluter is unfair. The Beijing government is spending billions of dollars annually on pollution prevention, he noted.
Bay Area experts help
China's efficiency programs are getting a boost from European and Bay Area experts. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is working with the Energy Foundation on a host of programs, ranging from consumer appliance standards to building codes. And the California Air Resources Board has helped Chinese federal and state governments set up air-quality monitoring programs.
"China is improving at many times the rate of improvement in the United
States," Schipper said. "The Bush administration should be getting its own
carbon house in order instead."
E-mail Robert Collier at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CHART: China and India - greenhouse gas danger? The United States still is the world's leading source of greenhouse gases . CHINA - 3,270.5 USA - 5,652.3 GERMANY - 837.5 INDIA - 1,016.4 Total carbon dioxide output for 2002 in metric tons
. . . but China and India are catching up fast, leading many analysts to warn that they are the main danger for global warming. CHINA - 45.0% USA - 16.7% GERMANY 13.3% INDIA - 70.9% Changes in total emissions 1990-2002
China and India say that their industries are becoming cleaner and that if measured as a percent of income, those emissions are actually dropping. CHINA - -52.2% USA - -16.8% GERMANY -28.9% INDIA -8.2% Changes in carbon dioxide/GDP ratio 1990-2002 Source: EMBARQ/World Resources Institute, based on data from the OECD and International Energy Agency