TIANJIN, China – This industrious nation’s allegiance to construction projects of massive scale are as familiar to the world as the 2,500-year-old, 5,500-mile Great Wall of China, which protected the country’s northern frontier, and as imposing as the wide moats and towering red stone walls of the 600-year-old Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing.

Still, international visitors attending China’s first U.N. climate change conference are struck by the immensity of the brand new polished marble and glass Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, the site of the meeting, and the intensity of the retail, commercial, and infrastructure construction occurring outside its hangar-like entry.

Spanning 2.47 million square feet and soaring to interior heights of 10 stories, the exhibition center, which resembles the Trade Federation’s shining headquarters in the Star Wars films, is easily large enough to house a small fleet of transoceanic jetliners. It opened in September following just eight months of construction. The building is so new and was constructed so quickly that the center does not appear on the city’s newest maps, which memorialize the small lakes and wetlands wrecked by its presence.

Meanwhile, flanking the brand new 10-lane boulevard out front are dozens of construction cranes, sprouted like dandelions atop the steel skeletons of residential and commercial towers under construction.

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The speed and scope of the development here, and in dozens of other Chinese cities, is visible evidence of the breathtaking economic expansion that in a generation has pulled 400 million Chinese from poverty into the middle class. At all times of the day and night, Tianjin’s restaurants are full and its noisy streets are a tangle of walkers, bikers, and drivers. China’s economic development ministries consistently state that they anticipate growth to continue apace, and by 2020 the economy will be 60 percent larger than it is today.

This week, in a number of side events, including one sponsored on Tuesday by the U.S. Climate Action Network, several of the leading environmental scientists and technical specialists in China and the United States described the consequences of reaching that goal on the nation’s energy production, and to the work of taming the warming climate.

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Their conclusions spanned a range of outcomes, both hopeful and discouraging. China’s powerful investment in wind and solar – nearly $35 billion last year and rapidly growing will help reduce carbon emissions. The country also is pursuing new combustion and pollution control technology – a good bit of it in cooperation with American industrial companies — to lower pollution and the climate risks of coal, which accounts for 70 percent of the country’s energy.

“There is real opportunity in developing better ways to use coal,” said Ming Sung, chief representative of the Clean Air Task Force in Beijing, who described new technology China is developing to capture, use, and permanently dispose of carbon emissions from coal plants.

But China’s devotion to its extensive coal reserves, according to every projection in and outside the government, also means a huge jump in carbon emissions over the next decade.

A Future Built on Coal
Indeed, lying at the other end of China’s surging economic expansion is a powerful engine fueled principally by coal. This nation, the world’s largest coal producer and consumer, will mine and use 3.15 billion tons of coal this year, three times more than the United States, according to the International Energy Agency. Of course, China also has 5 times the population of the U.S., requiring more power to electrify homes and power its economy. The result for the atmosphere is that China this year will add 6.3 billion tons of climate changing carbon emissions, the most of any country, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy.  

China understands its dilemma and is diversifying the energy portfolio. The country has 11 nuclear plants generating 11,000 megawatts and the government’s goal is to add 60,000 to 75,000 more megawatts by 2020, or roughly 60 to 70 new nuclear generating units. The nuclear expansion is a feature of the country’s plan, announced in July, to spend $738 billion over the next decade on “alternative energy development,” which also includes biomass, wind, solar, and natural gas from deep carbon bearing shales.

Moreover China has already built 4,000 miles of high-speed rail, including the 205 mph bullet train between Tianjin and Beijing, and plans to build 6,000 more miles.  It has developed policies to improve buildings, construct eco cities, and save energy.

Yet according to a range of estimates by authorities in and outside China, coal production and consumption by the end of the decade could still reach 3.5 billion to 4.5 billion tons.  China announced last year at the Copenhagen climate summit that it would cut the “carbon intensity” of its emissions 40 to 45 percent by 2020, meaning it would reduce the amount of carbon needed to generate a dollar of growth.  The world welcomed the commitment, the first time China ever bound itself to any emissions limit. Its representative here say they are meeting the goal.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a new report that looks at various scenarios of economic growth and China’s ability to develop cleaner energy sources, still projects that China’s carbon emissions will essentially double by the end of the decade.

When asked about this, Jiang Kejun, a director of research at the Energy Research Institute, a unit of the National Development and Reform Commission, said in an interview, “There’s disagreement about how much coal will be produced. We project that coal production will peak by 2020 at 3.4 billion tons.”

That projection, said Kejun, is based not only on meeting the goals of China’s energy efficiency and diversification program, but also on the country’s ability to achieve sizable improvements in generating efficiency from coal-fired plants.

China is closing its oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants at the rate of roughly two a month, according to Barbara Finamore, the director of the NRDC’s China Program, and opening new plants that burn coal more efficiently, thus lowering fuel consumption.

China also is building a 250-megawatt, utility-scale and more efficient integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) coal generating plant in Tianjin that also will use carbon capture and storage technology to control its emissions. The $1 billion plant will be completed next year by partnership that includes an American coal company, a consortium of Chinese utilities and coal companies, and the government. Similar technology will also be used on a power plant under development in Illinois,  learning from the Chinese experience.

It is the first in a line of similar IGCC plants China has already planned and permitted. Kejun said Chinese officials are waiting to see how the Tianjin plant performs before moving ahead with the others.

USCAN has arranged a tour of the plant for conference participants on Thursday, and we’ll have a complete report here.