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More important than Copenhagen? U.S.-China deal on energy and climate

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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obama-in-forbidden-cityWhen the presidents of the two nations that are responsible for 40 percent of Earth’s climate-changing greenhouse gases sit down to talk, big things can happen. In the case of Barack Obama and Hu Jintao on Monday and Tuesday, that meant flatly stating that emission reduction targets should be set at an international negotiation on climate change in Copenhagen this December, along with financial assistance figures to help poorer countries mitigate emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Oh, and the world should cut back on deforestation.

Adding those three puzzle pieces together could amount to solving half the globe’s climate problem despite involving just four countries—besides the U.S. and China, count in Brazil and Indonesia, which could do plenty by cutting back on their rainforest clearing activities.

But during their summit this week, Jintao and Obama also laid out a comprehensive program to address the clean energy challenge facing both nations, which would go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To wit:

•    the opening of a joint clean energy research center (pdf) with $75 million in funding from China and the U.S. over the next five years. Goals? Energy efficiency, "clean coal" and clean vehicles, among others;
•    Electric vehicle demonstration projects (pdf) and the development of joint standards for the new technology;
•    Joint building efficiency standards, including inspector and auditor training;
•    Renewable energy development roadmaps for both countries, including grid modernization;
•    U.S. assessment of Chinese shale gas (pdf) potential as well as help with development of this lower carbon fuel;
•    22 U.S. companies to help develop clean energy projects in China, including alternative energy, a "smart" grid and greater energy efficiency, among others;
•    corporate and government cooperation on "21st Century Coal," such as developing carbon capture and storage at the so-called GreenGen plant and gasification of coal to help remove pollution before combustion, among other efforts.

Coal is clearly the linchpin of any efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions from the two countries: the U.S. gets half its power from the dirty black rock and China more than 80 percent. In fact, burning coal is the main reason the two countries lead the world in producing global warming pollution. And coal has now surpassed oil as the fossil fuel producing the most greenhouse gases (ending a 40-year run for petroleum), according to the Global Carbon Project, thanks largely to a rapid increase in its burning in China, India and other developing countries.

But as far as efforts to clean coal go, there is currently only one project in the world that both captures and stores the CO2 that would otherwise be emitted from a coal-fired power plant—Mountaineer Power Plant in West Virginia. And that demonstration project captures just 1.5 percent of that 1,3000 megawatt coal-fired power plant’s emissions, or 0.00001 percent of global emissions of the greenhouse gas. China and the U.S. working together to solve climate change is exactly what the planet needs, yet it’s clear there is a long way to go. In fact, European and environmentalist commentators have charged Obama with being "dishonest" or "fibbing" about climate change.

However, as an ancient (and possibly apocryphal) Chinese philosopher mused: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Could this historic visit and agreement be that step for climate change?

Image: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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  1. 1. Mims 3:30 pm 11/17/2009

    One thing I would add: US and China are 40% of emissions right *now.* But if we don’t add Russia to any eventual deal, the 2nd largest coal reserve in the world will eventually (inevitably?) be burned in the name of sustaining the Earth’s teeming masses.

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  2. 2. sethdayal 7:47 pm 11/17/2009

    What not a word on the 10 American designed AP-1000 reactors China has under construction and final engineering. or the hundred that are being planned. If it wasn’t for the Republicans standing firm for 100 of them in the climate bill against Obama’s team of "renewable" nutballs buoyed up by the massive monetary support from Big Coal/Oil, we wouldn’t be seeing any nukes in the US.

    The Chinese nukes are coming in so far for at $1.7 billion a gigawatt and are expected to hit less than a $1 billion. Construction time 42 months. US cost same reactor 4 times that project time 10 years..

    A $2.5 trillion investment in American nuclear power, paid by ending $1 trillion in US fossil fuels expenditures with average payback of less than three years using a tiny fraction of US industrial capacity and American GHG emissions end.

    While the Chinese are spending 10 million man hours on engineers, technicians and labor in building their AP1000 nukes, the US AP-1000 team is spending the same plus 10 years worth of ten times as costly bureaucrats, lawyers and bankers. America’s political system is hopelessly grid locked and corrupted by Big Oil and our corrupt and litigious legal system, and our energy structure like our medical system is run almost 100% by grossly inefficient private companies quadrupling our cost and doubling our project timeframes.

    Nuclear Rejection Commission just dumped the AP1000 design because they weren’t sure that the concrete containment dome could hold the emergency cooling water!!!. This is standard civil engineering practice not different than a roof top swimming pool or a bridge design. The same reactor the Chinese are building as we speak.

    The US had a perfectly functioning 60 Mw fast metal Gen IV 100% efficient nuclear waste burning reactor, running for 30 years out in Idaho. Plans were in place for a $1 billion a gigawatt commercial installation. In one of the stupidest moves US politicians have ever made two dumbass’s Kerry and Clinton shut it down under pressure from Greenpeace or more likely they were bought out by Big Oil.

    Fortunately, Canada and Mexico are standing by waiting to rim the border with a massive employment boosting (to them) 2500 mass produced reactors and will make $trillions selling the US nuke power at premium rates.

    Nuclear power as the only possible answer to our less than ten years away civilization ending peak oil and climate crisis. Obama and his team of "renewable" religious zealots seem determined to drive us over that climate precipice and kill billions in the process.

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  3. 3. Soccerdad 8:15 am 11/18/2009

    What’s the point of describing coal as the "dirty black rock". First of all, it’s not a rock. Secondly, when you inspect a piece of coal it is actually kind of shiny, not dirty. I will concede that it is black however.

    I suspect that the author feels compelled to use the word "dirty" any time coal is referenced as kind of a conditioning for the reader. He may have picked up the term from a 2007 article in the International Socialist Review.

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  4. 4. Spiff 4:09 pm 11/18/2009

    The only problem with dealing with China, or any other powerful nation, is that you cannot go to them bowing and scraping the ground in a subjective manner – they have no respect for someone with that attitude, and that’s what they got with Obama! His going to Asia did not aid the USA, "climate control", or relations with China or Japan…

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  5. 5. jerryd 5:10 pm 11/18/2009

    Sethdayal, there is a reason everything here is 10x’s as much, quality costs and those in the US get a decent wage.

    Those border nukes are going to be in trouble as their fuel rises in price and and all the RE power competition, they won’t be getting premium rates’ even during the peak and will suffer badly with low might rates. Vs solar which gets premium peak rates and home wind which is dirt cheap.

    One can only call it dirty to mine or burn. It’s so dirty that to really clean it so it doesn’t cause health problems would take 50% of it’s energy. That is dirty!!

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  6. 6. nfiertel 9:43 pm 11/18/2009

    It is incorrect to state that only one carbon capture project is running..There is one in Saskatchewan jointly run with North Dakota injecting the carbon dioxide into substrata. It is a beginning. As well, Alberta intends to do a similar process with the Athabasca Oil Sands and has allocated money to do it…not pie in the sky in other words. The craziness of one letter about Canada having mass produced nuclear reactors ready to sell the US energy is someone’s stoned does not exist at all. By the way, nuclear is going to stop soon enough. There is used each year more uranium than can be mined. It is a resource soon to be history. done and done…We must start getting biofuel production using sewage and waste organics up and running. NASA has got it going and there is now a company going to make it happen commercially. There is also geothermal, wind, tidal sources and if the carbon capture method works economically, the oil sands will deliver oil securely for centuries…

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  7. 7. sethdayal 2:46 pm 11/19/2009

    More oil company promoted antinuclear disinformation.

    Carbon capture – talk about a stoned dream – never work economically and dangerous.

    Nope – the labor component in nukes is a small portion of the overall cost now and even less with mass production. The Chinese reactors are American AP-1000′s being built by American company Westinghouse so quality is the same. Nope its those inefficient private America power companies and corrupt American bankers,politicians and lawyers and associated delay tactics that are quadrupling American costs.

    There is an unlimited supply of nuclear fuel at a reasonable cost. Follow the comments at

    The least expensive "renewable" is ten times the cost of clean and green nuclear power.

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  8. 8. republicanH8R 6:28 pm 11/19/2009

    it’s easily apparent that you are a republican and a big oil supporter… your also obviously retarded in the sense that you say that "coal isn’t dirty its actually shiny" #1 rub a piece in your hand shale is shiny bituminous coal is awfully filthy… shale is also filthy. coal is readily combustible because of high amounts of hydrocarbons inside. it also burns incompletely which results in the formation of soot and other GHG’s take a look at the stack on ANY coal plant and see how much of a dumbass you are for saying its clean

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  9. 9. republicanH8R 6:31 pm 11/19/2009

    ^^^ is a reply to "soccerdad"
    perhaphs he should burn coal in a fireplace in his house and see how black it becomes

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  10. 10. mo98 4:36 pm 11/20/2009

    From November 6th, 1300 megawatt facility details:

    Coal, oil or radioactive material is less renewable than dried produce or timber. The long term goal of sustainability should not be at the expense of biodiversity while getting there.

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  11. 11. kaitsu50 7:44 am 11/22/2009

    About renewables catastrophy in Denmark:

    Germany: ( Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung Economic impacts from the promotion of renewable energies: The German experience Final report – October 2009)


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  12. 12. Shoshin 2:38 pm 11/23/2009


    Perhaps you should not burn anything and see how cold your children become…

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  13. 13. eco-steve 10:18 am 12/2/2009

    Maybe on the subject of coal mining we should spare a thought for the thousands of coal miners who die each year underground in China.
    Britain still has hundreds of redundant experienced coal mining engineers who could advise the chinese on how to dig coal safely.
    Spare also a thought for the mining survivors who will die young of silicosis. Silicosis too is a grave form of pollution.
    China is now a rich country by any standards. No doubt it will invest massively in new green socially-acceptable technologies which can be applied world-wide.

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  14. 14. cslagenhop 3:45 am 03/23/2012

    It is interesting to read the comments and the perspectives from 2009, now that we know this whole climate change nonsense is a scam, pushed on the world from pipe-dream socialists using science to manipulate the productive into supporting the unproductive.

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