Climate change

Fiddling while the world burns

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2006, 12:00am

Beijing will host a meeting tomorrow of energy ministers from the US and Asia. The 'coal rush' and climate change are sure to be prominent on their agenda. More and more coal is being burned in power plants around the world to generate electricity. This threatens to have the biggest single impact on the potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures - caused by emissions of gases that are heating the Earth's atmosphere.

Coal is increasingly popular as an industrial-scale fuel because it is abundant, widely distributed and cheaper than oil, natural gas or renewable energy sources like wind power. Since electricity demand is soaring, China and the US are adding coal-fired plants like crazy. Over 150 new ones are planned or being built in the US, and about 550 are being built in China.

On the positive side, this gives China and the US another productive area in which to co-operate. It may also help reduce their strategic competition for oil and gas in the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and the western hemisphere. On the negative side, it will hugely increase global-warming gas emissions by the world's two biggest polluters, and hasten disruptive climate change - unless technology is harnessed to cut the release of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

Carbon dioxide makes up 80 per cent of the world's human-made emissions of global-warming gases. Worldwide, electricity generation - mainly from burning coal - contributes 40 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. In China, coal-fired plants produce 75 per cent of the electricity supply; in the US, around 50 per cent. Why do these statistics matter? Because China and the US together release nearly 40 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. They are by far the two biggest polluters.

The International Energy Agency reported last month that China will surpass the US in 2009 as the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. China has a lot of scope to improve energy efficiency and conservation. Japan, with an economy about three times larger than China's, produced one-third less carbon dioxide emissions than its neighbour last year. China has begun requiring power companies to invest in bigger, more efficient coal-fired plants. The US is well ahead of China in developing cleaner-burning coal plants. But the big breakthrough for both will only come with carbon capture and storage, to keep it out of the atmosphere.

Most storage plans involve liquefying the gas and pumping it underground into former oil reserves, gas fields or coal mines - an expensive process. Experimental, clean-coal power plants that would bury carbon dioxide are under way in China, the US and other countries. But, to be commercially viable, the cost must be brought down and new regulations imposed, such as long-term caps or taxes on carbon dioxide emissions. Neither nation seems prepared yet to do this, fearing it would undermine economic growth.

Whatever measures they agree on would have to be adopted by other major polluters as well. The Kyoto Protocol requires a 5 per cent cut in carbon dioxide releases from 1990 levels by 2012 - by only 35 countries. It does not bind three of the five biggest polluters. The US pulled out, and China and India were exempted.

Meanwhile, global carbon emissions have risen over 25 per cent from 1990 levels. We are just fiddling while the world burns.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment