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Practical Cooperation on Coal, Climate

January 18, 2011

In his just-published remarks to the Washington Post prior to Wednesday’s upcoming summit with President Obama, Chinese President Hu called for “common ground” and “practical cooperation” between the two countries. From the standpoint of confronting our greatest mutual challenge — global climate change — the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases share no greater common ground than a warming planet.

And on Tuesday, a series of agreements that make good on President Hu’s second call — practical cooperation — for the joint development of clean energy technologies, are being inked by AEP, the largest utility in the U.S., and two of the biggest Chinese energy enterprises: China Huaneng Group and State Grid.

While these deals are momentous, they are not the first of their kind. In addition to the new AEP agreements, Ming Sung, head of Clean Air Task Force’s Beijing office, has helped build numerous business-to-business clean energy partnerships in the U.S. and China. The deals have involved leading energy companies like Duke Energy, KBR, and China’s privately-held ENN Group, and have featured a wide range of climate-friendly technologies, from systems that capture and store CO2 emitted by coal-fired plants to utility-scale solar generators to devices that use CO2-based foam to extinguish fires in coal seams. The success of these efforts offers another powerful reminder that collaboration between the U.S. and China, not competition or trade protectionism, is the best way forward to solving our climate crisis.

These joint enterprises will play an especially important role in the transformation of coal-based energy, which will remain a key source of energy for decades. The United States and China produce half of the world’s coal-fired power emissions, control almost a third of world’s coal reserves, and have built their energy sectors around large fleets of coal-fired generating stations. Coal use by China is expected to nearly double over the next 20 years.

The challenges posed by our shared reliance on coal also create an opportunity, however; because coal-based power is responsible for such a large share of global CO2 emissions, the development and deployment of technologies that allow us to derive energy from coal without greenhouse gas emissions will be a huge step toward climate change mitigation. Partnerships between companies from China and the West are crucial to accelerating the commercialization of low-carbon coal-based energy generation. Energy companies in North America and Asia have enormous experience and expertise working with coal, and are similarly motivated to develop technologies and techniques that will preserve a role for coal in a carbon-constrained world.

The environmental and economic benefits of transitioning to clean energy will be smaller and slower to materialize if Western and Chinese companies do not work together. The climate challenge will only be solved by multiplying opportunities for rapid development and deployment of low-carbon generating technologies, not by restricting engagement between companies in the world’s most dynamic economies. Investments by one country reduce the cost of those technologies worldwide, increasing the likelihood that carbon capture and storage and other critically important systems will be widely deployed in time to help avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Presidents Obama and Hu must lead the effort to address the reality of climate change while accounting for our countries’ specific economic and social circumstances. In the meantime, the Clean Air Task Force will continue to foster “practical cooperation” between innovative energy companies in Asia and the West, in order to develop and commercialize the technologies we will need to ensure the world has the affordable, carbon-free energy it needs.

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