Yes, America’s climate policy is immoral. But that doesn’t make China’s rapacious coal-plant building moral. The N.Y. Times has published the sobering numbers, which bear repeating:

The country built 114,000 megawatts of fossil-fuel-based generating capacity last year alone, almost all coal-fired, and is on course to complete 95,000 megawatts more this year.

For comparison, Britain has 75,000 megawatts in operation, built over a span of decades.

china-carbon.gifChina is now the main reason the world is recarbonizing — the carbon content of the average unit of energy produced has stopped its multi-decade decline, as noted. Yes, America is still responsible for a great deal more cumulative emissions, which is what drive concentrations, and China is doing much of its dirty manufacturing for U.S. consumers (I never said our hands were clean).

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But China seems to have adopted a policy of building as many coal plants as humanly possible until they are forced to stop — or, I suspect, until they get a deal that pays the country to shut them down (much as they have gamed the clean development mechanism under Kyoto).

If China won’t alter its coal policy to make its environment livable today even with the Olympics coming, it will require very strong international leadership (led by an America with a moral climate policy of our own) to have any chance at making them alter it to preserve a livable climate in the future.

So why doesn’t China pursue alternatives? The NYT story explains:

The most talked-about alternative to coal in China involves plans to quadruple the country’s share of power from nuclear energy by 2020. But the plan, which contemplates dozens of reactors, still amounts to just 31,000 megawatts of nuclear power over the next dozen years.

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“That’s minuscule,” said Jonathan Sinton, a China expert at the International Energy Agency. China builds more coal-fired capacity than that every four months.

Two big questions linger over even those modest goals: can equipment be manufactured for dozens of nuclear reactors, and can China train enough workers to run them?

At CLP’s Daya Bay nuclear plant in Shenzhen, a house-sized dome of specially hardened steel sat next to an immense crane one recent morning, waiting to be swung and bolted into position as part of the site’s sixth reactor.

But at least Daya Bay’s dome is here — reactors elsewhere in China wait up to several years. Only a handful of steel mills around the world can cast the thick domes, and only now are the first two mills in China taking delivery of equipment to make them.

The plant’s 1,750 employees, meanwhile, are training 500 interns at a time, according to Stephen Lau, the first deputy general manager of the plant; the government-owned nuclear power company asked that 1,000 be trained at a time, but the joint venture running the plant could not handle that many.

By contrast, there is no shortage of workers to run coal-fired power plants. China is dotted with decrepit state-owned coal-fired plants that each employ 900 to 1,000 people to produce just 50 to 100 megawatts. The government frequently asks companies to close one of these inefficient, heavily polluting operations and provide jobs or money to the workers before allowing the construction of a new coal-fired plant.

Gosh, how reassuring — mass-trained employees running nukes in China. What about wind?

But coal’s problems are nothing compared with the challenges facing the wind-energy industry, which requires much more land and is troubled by years-long shortages of a wider range of parts, as well as contradictory regulatory policies. For instance, Beijing has mandated that power transmission companies pay at least 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour to buy wind-generated electricity from approved power producers, not much above the 4.5 cents an hour they pay for coal-generated power. But the premium is so small that only one-third of 1 percent of the nationally regulated wind power projects approved in 2004 have actually been built, and none of those approved in the last two years, said Vivek Kher, a spokesman for Suzlon Energy, an Indian manufacturer of wind turbines.

Some provincial governments have ordered payments of 8.1 cents for wind projects they regulate, he said, and these projects are being built.

What about natural gas?

Plans have slowed to expand the use of natural gas, which burns more cleanly and produces less greenhouse gas than coal or oil. It has proved costly and difficult to build pipelines from gas fields in western China, while liquefied natural gas for transport in ships is in short supply.

And hydro?

The future of hydroelectric power in China is clouded by severe environmental problems at the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

One of the strangest features of China’s energy policy is the paucity of environmental controls on coal-fired plants, because rules governing them were written long ago. Renewable energy projects actually face a more stringent review of their environmental impact.

I would like to have seen the NYT talk about the efficiency opportunity in China, since that was a strategy they had adopted aggressively in the 1980s, but abandoned about a decade ago. That will be the subject of Part II.