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Clean Coal Best Way To Fuel Asia’s Growth

Frank Ching, SCMP – Updated on Dec 23, 2008

As China this month celebrates 30 years of extraordinary growth, it is also keenly aware that it has had to pay a steep environmental price – in terms of the health of its people because of severe pollution of its air, water and land.

Pan Yue, deputy environment minister, wrote recently: “China’s reform and opening has achieved in 30 years the economic gains of more than 100 years in the west – yet more than 100 years of environmental pollution in the west have materialised in 30 years in China.”

That is to say, the pace of China’s environmental pollution matches that of its economic growth. China has now overtaken the United States as the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases.

That is not a record of which to be proud. To be sure, the developed countries, in particular the US and those in western Europe, have been responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. But China now contributes more than the US, and India is not far behind.

But the Earth is a vessel in which we all are journeying and we will all sink or swim together. Finger-pointing is not going to help: we need to reduce, as much as possible, the carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere by all countries.

There has been a lot of talk about switching from fossil fuels to non-polluting forms of energy such as wind, solar or nuclear power. However, in the foreseeable future, there is no alternative to fossil fuels and, in particular, coal.

Coal is abundant and cheap, and is going to be used anyway, so there is a compelling need to come up with technology to “clean” the coal. Such technology is now on the lips of politicians and scientists from Australia to Canada, and from China to the US. It is an idea whose time has come.

One example of the recognition of the need to use coal without polluting the air is the announcement in Hong Kong this month by Washington University in St Louis of its partnership with 24 premier research universities around the world, 17 of which are in Asia, including universities in the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“The consortium’s goal is to bring university researchers, industries, foundations and government organisations together to research clean coal technology,” Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University, said. “The results of such research could support the fast-growing economies of Asia to fuel further development while at the same time increasing the awareness of coal as an efficient and environmentally safe form of energy.”

At present, research into clean coal technology is going on in many developed nations. There is already some co-operation between China and the US. At the latest session of the strategic economic dialogue in Beijing earlier this month, it was announced that an “EcoPartnership” had been formed between Energy Future Holdings of the US and China Huadian. Both companies are pursuing the development of sustainable business models for “clean energy”, particularly clean coal.

China and Britain, too, have jointly launched a near zero emissions coal initiative that aims to capture and geologically sequester carbon dioxide generated by coal combustion. It is expected that a demonstration near-zero-emissions plant will be built in China by 2014.

Currently, researchers are focusing on ways in which coal can be burned without releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The thinking is that the carbon can somehow be captured and then safely stored in the ground permanently, or until science has progressed to the point that it can be disposed of in some other way.

Pooling efforts in a consortium should make the research more efficient. This is something that the world, not just China or the US, needs badly.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.

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