Mechanisms exist to help China minimise the environmental impact of its dependence on coal

The prospects for tackling global climate change are looking up following agreements made at the United Nations climate change conference in Montreal, Canada, last month. 

Countries that have signed the Kyoto protocol agreed to start work on commitments and targets beyond 2012. Meanwhile, countries outside the protocol, notably the US, agreed to non-binding talks on long-term measures focusing on helping countries adapt to the impact of climate change, and examining technology and market-based opportunities for reducing emissions. 

This process will enable developing countries, such as China and India, to be brought into discussions on limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

China’s inclusion, in particular, will be crucial. China’s estimated energy-related CO2 emissions were 3541 million tonnes in 2003, 14.1 per cent of world CO2 emissions. The country’s per capita CO2 emissions are still low at 2.72 tonnes per person in 2003, compared with 19.95 tonnes per person in the US. But as the country’s economy grows, emissions levels will rise rapidly unless China adopts technologies and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

China is heavily reliant on coal. It accounts for 65 per cent of the country’s energy consumption and China is the world’s largest consumer and producer of coal. In 2003, it consumed 1.5 billion tonnes, 28 per cent of the world total. Although the amount of energy that China gets from coal is projected to fall, coal consumption will still increase in absolute terms. 

Given that China will continue to use coal, technological improvements are necessary to reduce its impact. Many organisations are researching clean coal technology options to improve the environmental performance of coal-fired plants. Carbon capture and storage, which involves storing CO2 underground, is of particular interest. It was discussed at the Montreal climate change conference and the Intergovernmental panel on climate change has published a report on the subject.

There are currently three commercial projects involving CO2 capture and geological storage: the offshore Sleipner natural gas processing project in Norway; the Weyburn enhanced oil recovery project in Canada; and the In Salah natural gas project in Algeria. Each of these projects captures and stores around one to two million tonnes of CO2 per year. The technology has not yet been applied at a large fossil-fuel power plant. 

China is interested in the technology and it is one of the options being developed under a partnership on climate change signed between the EU and China in September, 2005. The goals of this agreement are to develop and demonstrate advanced zero-emissions coal technology and reduce the cost of energy technologies and promote their use. 

Other options for China include developing more efficient coal-fired power plants. Some small-scale projects using coal gasification are currently under way. 

The technology exists to enable China to use its abundant coal reserves and reduce its impact on the environment. The partnerships and working groups are in place, they now need to ensure the technology is put into practice. 

Karen Harries-Rees