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Senior Obama Administration and Chinese Government Officials Call for Rapid Development of "Clean" Coal Technologies

| Apr. 21, 2009

At High-Level Workshop, Officials Urge Faster Deployment of Carbon Capture and Sequestration, Other Advanced Coal Technologies

With both China and the United States relying heavily on coal for electricity, senior government officials from both countries urged immediate action to push forward technology that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants.

John Holdren

John Holdren, President Barack Obama's science advisor
Photo by Sharon Wilke

John Holdren, on leave from the Harvard Kennedy School to serve as President Barack Obama's science advisor, returned to campus for the first time since joining the Administration. Citing figures from the Energy Information Administration and the IEA, Holdren said global electricity generation is expected to triple by 2050 under "business as usual" scenarios, compared to 2000 levels, and reach five times those levels by 2100.

"These are staggering problems," he said. "We're all interested in renewables and in the prospects of nuclear energy, but the baseline expectation is that fossil fuels will continue to play a dominant role."

That makes finding better ways to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from coal all the more important, Holdren said.

Holdren spoke April 16 at a high-level workshop jointly hosted by China's Ministry of Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. Holdren is on leave as co-principal investigator of the project.

The workshop aimed to develop concrete and specific opportunities for U.S.-China cooperation on advanced coal technologies, and the group will submit policy recommendations to both the Obama Administration and the Chinese government. Cao Jianlin, vice minister in China's Ministry of Science and Technology, represented the Chinese government together with Jiang Mianheng, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The workshop examined issues surrounding Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle coal plants, which turn coal into gas and remove impurities before the coal is combusted, as well as the related carbon capture and sequestration, in which the carbon dioxide emissions are captured and stored underground to avoid releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Though promising, advanced coal technologies face steep financial and legal hurdles, and almost certainly will need sustained support from governments to develop the technology and move it to a point where its costs are low enough for widespread use.

group photo

Photo by Sharon Wilke

In his opening remarks, Cao said China attaches "great importance" to developing advanced coal technology. Although China has invested heavily in solar and wind power, it continues to rely on coal to fuel roughly 70 percent of its commercial energy needs.

China and the United States are the two world's largest users of coal. Though relatively abundant and cheap, coal emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than either oil or natural gas — making it particularly problematic for mitigating global climate change. If the world is to stop emissions from spiraling upward, it will need to find a solution to coal, Holdren said.

Jiang noted that China's projected use of energy is set to increase dramatically in the coming years, with coal as the single largest source of emissions. Most of China's coal goes to industrial uses and power generation, rather than the residential uses, he said. This is significant because many of the products manufactured by industry are eventually exported to developed countries, making the problem global in scope. Jiang estimated that 37 percent of China's energy consumption is tied to exports.

Jiang also discussed Chinese government figures that forecast domestic coal supply to peak somewhere between 2015 and 2040, and domestic oil production to peak between 2020 and 2030. That will make developing renewable sources of energy all the more essential, he said.

If the government's predictions come to pass, China will face a severe energy shortage, he said — and difficult questions about how to fill the gap.

"These issues are extremely important - there is an urgent need for them to be addressed," he said. Jiang said the clean use of coal is one of the top priorities for the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "It is my strong belief that together we'll be able to make a difference."

Last week's workshop was part of an ongoing partnership between the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center and China's Ministry of Science and Technology, said Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Energy Technology Innovation Policy group. Since 2002, the groups have held at least one workshop per year in China and the United States on technology policy for cleaner and more efficient energy.

"Mutual education has been one of the biggest contributions of this partnership," Gallagher said. "We've visited each other's facilities. We've learned a lot over the years."

Cao also noted that the Chinese government's collaboration with the Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group at Harvard has been a "great success" to date, and said he looks forward to discussion of future collaboration.  Jiang said the workshop program has gained momentum over the years and has become a "common platform for dialogue between the energy communities in the United States and China."

Holdren said that workshop participants can make a large contribution by identifying specific actions that should be taken to promote advanced coal technologies in the US and China.  He said that the disruption and impact from global climate change are growing much more rapidly than predicted just a few years ago. Although it already is too late to avoid "dangerous" human interference in the climate, it may not be too late to avoid "catastrophic interference," he said.

To do this, global carbon dioxide emissions concentrations should stabilize around 450 ppm, developed countries' carbon dioxide emissions should start falling by 2015, and developing countries' carbon dioxide emissions should start falling by 2025, he said. All this will require much better technology, and much stronger policies, he said.

"We're playing a game of — forgive me — Russian roulette with the climate system and all that depends on it," Holdren said. Using figures from the IEA, Holdren noted that it will be next to impossible to achieve these kind of greenhouse gas emissions reductions without finding solutions to reduce the emissions from coal and also from transportation fuels.

"If we don't get these done, we will not be able to achieve these emissions trajectories," he said.

Gallagher and Zhao Lifeng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (and a former fellow with the Energy Technology Innovation Policy group) will co-author recommendations made at the workshop. They plan to release them to both Administrations, as well as to interested policymakers from around the world.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Talcott, Sasha. “Senior Obama Administration and Chinese Government Officials Call for Rapid Development of "Clean" Coal Technologies.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 21, 2009.

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