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North America and Asia: Big Tech for climate

Quick: What energy source added the most new output to the world in 2013? Solar? Wind? Not even close. Gas? Wrong. What about new oil from fracking? Lots of that, sure, but the big winner? That would be coal. 

Last year saw twice as much new coal energy as either new gas or oil, twenty times as much coal energy as solar, and five times as much as wind. 

{mosads}Most of this coal energy was produced in Asia, where demand is growing fastest and coal is abundant, cheap, and rapidly scalable. Consider for example that despite being the world’s largest solar market, China is still building a coal plant every week. Whereas coal power is waning in the U.S., in Asia it is expected to grow 50 percent by 2035. 

Cheap coal facilitates Asia’s rapid modernization, but it also threatens the global climate. Even if the world never built another coal plant, the ones operating today will take us nearly halfway to a trillion tons of carbon emissions by mid-century. Projected conventional coal growth in Asia, combined with other emissions, pushes us over that mark. In the case of China, even Wednesday’s historic US-China climate change agreement, in which each country committed to cap emissions by or around 2030, falls short, because the plants built before 2030 will continue to emit CO2 for many more decades. 

How can countries reconcile the irresistible force of prosperity that drives energy consumption and the immovable object—a climate system that we can’t let overheat? An important answer is zero-carbon electricity: we need to displace new coal and gas plants with zero-carbon energy or scrub carbon out of new and existing plants. Likely both. 

Renewable energies like wind and solar will play a large role in displacing coal and gas. But relying on them to do the whole job would be unrealistic. Even with recent cost reductions, they scale slowly. After two decades of development, wind and solar provide just 3 percent of the word’s electricity, whereas fossil fuels provide 68%. They also require expensive back-up power when wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, even with low-cost storage. 

That leaves two “big tech” options as important parts of the solution: nuclear energy and zero-carbon coal and gas. But nuclear plants are still more expensive than fossil energy plants (although not most renewables), require four to five years to build, and are vulnerable to accidents (even if those accidents are far less environmentally damaging than fossil fuel emissions). Carbon capture and storage has only recently been deployed and is still more expensive than burning raw coal. 

We need technology innovation and know-how (i.e., learning by doing) to drive down costs and improve performance. Properly linked, North American and Asian technology and growing Asian energy markets can do both. 

The world’s first four commercial-scale carbon-scrubbed coal plants are now under construction in North America; the first one went online this fall in Canada. China also has two demonstration-scale carbon-scrubbing projects and is moving toward large commercial projects. The Clean Air Task Force and others are working to link companies in China and North America to quickly demonstrate, scale up, and sell better, less-expensive technology. 

A similar approach must be adopted with respect to nuclear energy. China is ahead of the US by building the world’s first commercial reactor using sodium rather than water to reduce cost and improve safety. China is also adapting advanced Western water-based designs and is reducing costs and build time through mass manufacturing. It aims to eventually export this technology. Dozens of US nuclear start-ups are pioneering even more advanced designs, with many of these companies looking to build with Asian partners, where energy demand provides room to experiment. 

How can we accelerate and scale these opportunities? A serious set of public and private partnerships would extend beyond existing China-US research exchange programs.  They would match up US technology companies with China markets and facilitate commercial projects to be built in both countries. The two governments would review policies with an eye towards accelerating technical and intellectual property transfer. And both countries would provide financial support for new technologies and projects that flow from cross-national collaboration. 

Climate change is one of history’s greatest challenges. But by joining together and focusing on big, as well as small, technologies, the innovation and market engines of North America and Asia might just meet it, and the US-China climate agreement may mark the beginning of a promising global trend to cap emissions while promoting economic development. 

Sung is the chief Asian-Pacific representative of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit organization that advances low-carbon energy, and Cohen is the organization’s executive director. Cohen will speak in Washington, D.C., on November 19 at a conference on Capitol Hill with Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), and The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) entitled “Implications of North American Coal and Gas to Asia.” For more information, please visit the event webpage.

Tags Charles Boustany Gene Green

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