Capturing a niche in low-carbon market

Tubes in which algae is grown in carbon dioxide removed from coal at a facility outside Beijing.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: President Obama spent two hours with his Chinese host in Beijing today. After meeting with President Hu Jintao, President Obama said the two countries have no choice but to work together on the big issues. Everything from nuclear proliferation to the international economy to global warming. On that subject, by the way -- global warming -- Mr. Obama said he is still expecting some kind of agreement to come out of next month's UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. When that deal is finally done, there will be much financial green to be had, as well.

So this week our series -- "The Climate Race" -- is taking a global tour of how different countries are investing in green technology right now. And China is a big one. It churns out solar panels and wind turbines. It produces more alternative energy than any other country. But it also produces more greenhouse gases than anybody else. Largely because it can't seem to get away from burning coal. But China does see a green lining there as well, as Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.


SCOTT TONG: China is industrializing fast. In the span of a single generation, hundreds of millions of people have left the farm and moved into cities. They've bought cars and electric appliances.

Ming Sung is with the international nonprofit Clean Air Task Force.

MING Sung: In the rural area, they don't have air conditioning. They don't have refrigerators or TVs. So they want to have electricity. Can we deny their comfort, that sort of things? The answer is no.

China has four times as many people as the United States. That's a lot of people demanding lots of energy. It has to come from somewhere.

Sung: China is not blessed with plenty of oil. So the only energy resource they do have within their own control is coal.

An elevator takes miners down to the coal face in Shanxi province, the West Virginia of China. It's risky work.

On the average day, 30 Chinese men contract black lung disease. Nine die in mine accidents. Yet coal is China's economic oxygen.

Retired miner Yi Yuezhi.

Yi YUEZHI: Mining definitely benefits the country. Remember the year southern China had a big snowstorm, and they lost power? Comrade Hu Jintao came here and said, "Don't rest! Keep mining coal!"

Freight trains ferry the coal across this vast country. To power the factories that export iPhones and khakis pants to a store near you. But a further, unintended export is carbon dioxide.

Energy consultant Bill Senior.

BILL Senior: In China, coal use accounts for 80 percent of their energy-related CO2 emissions. So without a solution for that, we don't have a solution for climate change.

So China is racing to develop renewable energy. Wind turbines are being installed here faster than in any other country. And China's put a much vaunted plug-in hybrid car on the market.

But the point of all this innovation isn't just saving the planet. It's to reduce China's imports of fossil fuels. China buys half its oil from overseas, and some of its coal. Thing is, it could take a generation to make alternative energy cheap and abundant. So, for now, China has to keep burning coal. It just wants to do it more cleanly and efficiently. One promising avenue is called "carbon-capture and storage."

DEBBIE Stockwell: On a single power plant it could reduce the emissions by up to 90 percent.

Debbie Stockwell, in the U.K.'s department of Energy and Climate change, helps emerging economies develop clean technologies, like carbon capture. How's it work? If you think of a coal-fired power plant as a car, carbon capture, or CCS, is like taking the tailpipe and sticking it in the ground.

Stockwell: CCS is really the only technology around at the moment that has got the potential to significantly reduce emissions from the power generation sector.

China's developing its own version. About 40 miles outside Beijing, the Chinese company ENN puts coal through a chemical process, which captures carbon dioxide in a pipe, so it's not emitted. And then, get this, the carbon's pumped into tanks of algae. We all remember plants absorb CO2, right?

The algae reproduces and, believe it or not, the slimy stuff can then be sold. ENN's Wang Yang.

Wang Yang: Algae can be crushed, and the oil can be turned into diesel, jet fuel quality. Or, it can be made into anti-aging cosmetic cream. The leftover algae can be an additive for animal feed.

Now, algae sludge is not a big seller right now. And it's certainly not the whole answer to climate change. But Ming Sung at the Clean Air Task Force says the point is there's money to be made in the clean tech race. And Chinese companies are certainly keeping pace.

Sung: They don't mind go head to head with anybody. They feel they can beat people. The Chinese enterprises: they think we can do it faster, we can do it cheaper.

Faster because China's authoritarian government can issue permits and regulations without industry lobbyists slowing things down as they do in the U.S. Cheaper because of low wages. In fact, one Chinese company's already exported its carbon-capture equipment to a power plant in Pennsylvania.

Hmm, China and exports, Energy Consultant Bill Senior has heard that before.

Senior: If carbon capture and storage becomes a global market, China could well be the manufacturing hub for much of the equipment. Just as they're manufacturing everything else that we use in our day to day lives.

Chinese jobs and patents could follow too. And for Beijing, that's a key point. As one observer put it, China lagged way behind the West in the industrial revolution. It won't let that happen this time in the green-energy revolution.

In Shanxi, northern China, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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