By Peter Galuszka
President Barack Obama’s trailblazing pact with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to limit greenhouse gas emissions through 2025 is welcome news and could do much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions since the two countries are responsible for about 40 percent of the globe’s total.
China is an economic powerhouse so energy hungry it builds a new coal-fired generating plant about every eight to 10 days. Its leaders have pledged to cap carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier.
Obama announced a plan to cut U.S. emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This is a bigger cut than the 17 percent reduction by 2020 that he had announced earlier.
The agreement, reached in Beijing, is most welcome for the obvious reason that it would make a huge contribution to reducing greenhouse gases. It also undercuts the arguments by the fossil fuel industry, some utilities and their drum beaters that any steps the U.S. takes in cutting carbon pollution are pointless since China (or other Asian countries) will keep polluting anyway.
The arguments are crucial since Virginia’s Big Energy industry and the staff of the State Corporation Commission are attacking plans by the EPA to greatly reduce carbon.
Consider this gem of wisdom from another correspondent on this blog: “Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.)”
Sadly, this kind of mentality is regressive and, with the new Washington-Beijing pact, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
One thing many American commentators don’t seem to realize is that China isn’t necessarily a primitive business juggernaut stomping on any rational plan to check pollution. Beijing and Shanghai have some of the highest rates of air pollution in the world and its leadership, especially engineers and policy makers capable of understanding how technology can help them, knows they just can’t continue as before.
Three years ago, I visited both cities to research a book on the coal industry (newly out in an updated paperback, by the way, see below). I also went to Ulanbatour, the capital of coal-driven Mongolia where the air was so bad, I felt delirious within hours after arrival and by the next morning I showed signs of pulmonary illness.
The promise for changing things seems to money and the system.
In the U.S., we have a regulatory oversight apparatus over energy generation. This is reasonable because it prevents electric utilities from using their monopoly power to stick customers with high rates. But the system is flawed because: (1) it too often favors big utilities over average consumers and; (2) it is rigged to prevent new, experimental and possibly transformative technologies that very well could allow the use of dirty and dangerous but still cheap coal.
In the latter case, the thinking seems to be to go for ephemeral cost benefits (like using natural gas) without having any long-term strategy that actually might save lots more money through better health and more efficient, less-polluting energy.
In several cases, regulators nixed pilot plants that burn coal but use special new ways of doing so that capture a lot of carbon either in a chemical process involving ammonia or by stripping off the carbon emission from the pollution stream and sequestering them safely away. The plants cost big money. They are much cheaper to do as greenfield sites but regulators are more inclined to prevent them in favor with the soup d’jour of power that happens to be cheapest at the moment, in our current case, natural gas.
China, being a top-down, totalitarian state, doesn’t have these restrictions. If the leadership thinks they have a technology, such as carbon capture from coal, that might work, they can go ahead and build it. They don’t have the same problems with funding in the U.S. and could very well carry out a cheaper greenfield plant.
This may make me sound like a socialist but I am really more of a realist. Don’t forget that some of the largest and most successful technology projects in this country, namely the Manhattan Project which produced the first nuclear weapons, was a top-down, government-inspired operation. I don’t want to argue the ethics of such devices here, I am just pointing out what a disciplined, goal-specific plan did. It is doubtful that a “magic of the market” plan could have done the same given the time demands of global war.
When I was researching my book, I came across a fascinating article by James Fallows who is familiar with China. He wrote about coal and other forms of energy in China and it tends to upend the arguments made by climate change naysayers who want to keep the Big Energy status quo. Fallows quotes David Mohler of Duke Energy as saying: “They are doing so much so fast that their learning curve is at an inflection that simply could not be matched in the United States.”
“’In America, it takes a decade to get a permit for a plant,’ a U.S. government official who works in China said. ‘Here, they build the whole thing in 21 months. To me, it’s all about accelerating our way to the right technologies, which will be much slower without the Chinese.
“’You can think of China as a huge laboratory for deploying technology,’ the official added. ‘The energy demand is going like this’—his hand mimicked an airplane taking off—‘and they need to build new capacity all the time. They can go from concept to deployment in half the time we can, sometimes a third. We have some advanced ideas. They have the capability to deploy it very quickly. That is where the partnership works.’”
Fallows also quotes energy expert Julio Friedman: ”In the U.S. today, there is not a single demonstration of capturing CO2 from a coal-fired plant at large scale,” he said. “The technologies have been a little too expensive to actually implement. That’s why we started looking at China.’ They can afford to build, and Americans can hope to watch and learn.”
A few caveats, to be sure. Coal is still a mess in China for reason other than pollution. The country loses many times more miners in fatal accidents than in the U.S. And, a recent slowdown in economic activity has cut demand for thermal and metallurgical coal. Yet another issue is that the new pact does not involve India which is also a huge burner of dirty coal.
A larger point for Virginia is that while the world moves ahead with controlling greenhouse gases, Big Energy and the SCC are stuck in the past trying to save as many old-form coal mining jobs and over-sized executive compensation for their for their bosses. The mentality seems to be to “save” creaky, old coal-plants scheduled for shut down anyway while maintaining an out-of-date mindset from 2007 regarding renewables.
The SCC took a hit this morning when the EPA regional administrator for the area noted in a newspaper letter that in a recent analysis dunning the EPA’s proposed carbon cuts, the SCC completely ignored the health benefits that those cuts will provide. “For every dollar we invest in the plan, families will see $7 in health benefits,” wrote Shawn M. Garvin.
Leave it to the state’s Big Energy cabal to totally ignore health issues in their cost-benefit analysis. Meanwhile, kudos to Obama and the Chinese for the new pact.
Shameless self-promotion: The expanded paperback version of my 2012 book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets of Big Coal,” is now available online and in bookstores from West Virginia University Press. It includes a foreword by acclaimed Mountain State novelist Denise Giardina. She and I will be on hand to discuss the book at Taylor’s Books in Charleston on the evening of Nov. 18.There are currently no comments highlighted.