Shanghai: Soot City
Shanghai: Soot City

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.”

Fallows writes:

“’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.

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7 responses to “Kudos: U.S.-China Climate Pact”

  1. Peter said, “The agreement, reached in Beijing, is most welcome for the obvious reason that it would make a huge contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.”

    And who will be making the actual reductions? China?

    Not so much, says the JoNova blog:

    What exactly did China commit too?

    …a first-ever commitment by China to stop its emissions from growing by 2030.

    Sixteen years from now China may be producing a lot more CO2 each year but they promise to keep their ultra high level at the same ultra high level year after year from then on. They are promising to stick to “extreme”, but not rise to “obscene”.

    So, the U.S. cuts emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China holds steady at 2030 levels. Sounds like Obama negotiated one hell of a deal!

    And what happens if either the U.S. (with its Republican-dominated Congress) or China fail to meet their goals? Are there any sanctions? Punishments? Inducements? Or is this “trailblazing pact” a lot of hot air and hooey?

    1. Bacon is a HOOT!

      in a world full of real scientists , he focuses on this lady:

      ” A prize-winning science graduate in molecular biology, Jo has also hosted a children’s TV series on Channel Nine, and has done over 200 radio interviews, many on the Australian ABC. She was formerly an associate lecturer in Science Communication at the ANU and is based in Perth, Western Australia.

      She is married to Dr David Evans, the Stanford PhD in fourier analysis, former leading carbon modeler for the Australian Greenhouse Office. They support their own research and writing. At the moment they are living largely off donations from readers. (Thank you!)”

      Now I do not diss the lady – but does she really have the credentials for her views on climate?

      People like Jim seem to focus on people they “like to listen to”.

      Don’t get me wrong. I do not think the world of climate science is sacrosanct – but on the other hand – it’s curious how intelligent folks seek information these days.

  2. Peter, to pile onto James’ comments, the President has initialed a deal which will probably have less force than some of his other Executive Orders. In order to implement this agreement, which has no legislative basis, one of the Executive Departments (probably EPA) will need to issue a regulation establishing the cuts (by whom and by how much), and then defend that regulation against the certain challenges from the impacted industries.

    If EPA does not issue a final regulation by the end of Pres Obama’s administration, than the next administration is free to kill the draft regulation, if it so chooses.

    I would hold off on the huzzahs until the goals articulated by the President are encoded in a final regulation that has survived legislative and court challenges. Until then, these goals are aspirational, but not operational.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      According to the Constitution, the Senate must ratify any treaty signed by the President or it doesn’t take effect. Example, the Treaty of Versailles.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Hmm, why after nearly 40 years of covering energy in this country and abroad have I never heard of JNOVA? What are her credentials? BY this logic, any international agreement that the U.S. government agrees to, especially if it is Barack Obama, is not worth the paper it is written upon.

    No one has touched my points that maybe, just maybe, the Chinese have brains, the money and the system to do something real about climate change if they choose to. I quote Fallows, who as far as I know, has slightly more credibility than some obscure blogger.

    1. NoVaShenandoah Avatar

      And still no response. Very interesting …

  4. re: ” “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. ”

    That attitude is fairly typical – Jim B says he wants electricity to stay cheap and there is an unstated view that the health effects data is not real…just made up numbers…coming from Scientists who cook the books to justify stricter pollution restrictions…

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