There is an excellent article in this month’s Technology Review outlining the forward-looking utilization of coal in China: “China’s Coal Future” by Peter Fairley. According to the article, much of China’s effort focuses on implementing coal gasification.
Coal gasification (the Fischer-Tropsch and the Bergius processes) turns complex coal molecules into simple hydrocarbons, hydrogen gas, and ultimately petroleum products like gasoline. The major benefits of gasifying coal include: 1) pollutant removal to assure cleaner-burning fossil fuel and 2) utilization of coal to make transportation fuels.
China is rapidly growing into a modern economy. Cleaner coal energy should be desirable in a nation where pollution is so pronounced that it now impacts air quality at Donner Summit near Lake Tahoe, some 10,000 miles away. However, the Chinese see gasification as a revenue source; oil produced by gasified coal becomes profitable at about $45 per barrel. Gasification also provides an escape from reliance on foreign fossil fuel, enabling China to sidestep foreign policy issues and military costs that have married the United States to the Middle East. If China were interested in cleaning up their coal industry, they would replace or retrofit their plants with cleaner coal technologies, which, of course, they have not.
Increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be the most serious impact of all this coal gasification and burning. Today, it is almost impossible to not believe in global warming. Even non-believers must accept the scientific fact that CO2 is being dumped into the atmosphere 100 times faster now than at any time over the past 400,000 years.
In February 2005, the Kyoto Protocol came into force, representing a global effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions by putting an economic value on offset carbon dioxide production. Mark Clayton pointed out in a brilliant Christian Science Monitor article that the world’s three top carbon dioxide producers are exempt from the Kyoto Protocol. Under the treaty, China and India are considered developing countries, exempt from carbon caps. The United States has failed to ratify the protocol and is therefore not bound to it.
Today, half the world’s CO2 emissions come from the US and China. By 2035, China could be producing twice the US output, and 40 percent of the world’s total. In short, even if the rest of the world somehow eliminated all carbon emission, the escalating Chinese and American rates of carbon production would offset the difference.
In other words, the Kyoto Protocol is useless, and China is an out-of-control coal-fired locomotive without any brakes.