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New coal plants bury 'Kyoto'

New greenhouse-gas emissions from China, India, and the US will swamp cuts from the Kyoto treaty.

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The third uncertainty involves new technology. Having rejected Kyoto, President Bush says the US will pursue its own policy of voluntary carbon reductions and conduct research into technologies like "carbon sequestration" - burying CO2 rather than emitting it. To do that, the US Department of Energy hopes to develop new technologies by 2012 that would economically capture the greenhouse gas before it leaves the power plant.

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One approach - called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology - aims to siphon off CO2 before it's sent up the stack. The largest US power company, American Electric Power in Columbus, Ohio, plans to build at least one commercial IGCC plant by 2010. Another coal-burning power company, Cinergy, in Cincinnati, this month said it also would build an IGCC plant.

But funding for a key billion-dollar federal IGCC experimental program called FutureGen is lagging. And unless the US sets a limit on CO2 emissions that creates a market for carbon-reducing technology, there is little financial incentive to invest in such technology, experts say. As a result, the technology appears unlikely to be deployed in time to make much difference in the coming surge of power-plant construction.

Without such technology, the impact on climate by the new coal plants would be significant, though not entirely unanticipated. They would boost CO2 emissions from fossil fuels by about 14 percent by 2012, Schmidt estimates. That's within the 1 to 2 percent annual range for CO2 growth expected in "high-growth" scenarios put forward by climate scientists. But it does not fall into the "maximum" scenario they use to evaluate the worst-case impact of greenhouse gases.

The power of six

"The point is that a relatively small number of countries holds the fate of the planet in their hands in terms of climate change," says David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "If the five or six countries building all these power plants were to come together to develop a strategy for carbon capture applied to coal, it would be a huge step toward cutting global warming."

Energy security is one factor driving the shift. With its 250-year supply of coal, the US is often called the "Saudi Arabia of coal." China, with similarly huge reserves, is even planning to convert coal into synthetic fuel for cars - even though such processes typically produce large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Coal's low price has been a powerful incentive, too. Chinese authorities are pushing for cleaner power. But gas pipelines in China aren't fully utilized because of that fuel's higher cost, experts say. And in the US, utility companies are shifting focus from natural gas to coal instead.

"There has been an abrupt about-face," says Robert McIlvaine, who heads his own Northfield, Ill., information company that tracks the construction of coal power plants globally. "Utilities that would not consider a coal-fired plant a year or two ago are now moving forward with coal-fired projects."

With natural gas prices expected to continue rising, 58 other nations have 340 new coal-fired plants in various stages of development. They are expected to go online in a decade or so. Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Turkey are all planning significant new coal-fired power additions. Germany also plans to build eight coal plants with 6,000 megawatts capacity.

But China is the key. "The Chinese will surpass the coal-fired generating capacity and the CO2 emissions of the US in the next couple of years," Mr. McIlvaine says.

Hit by blackouts and power restrictions for 18 months, China has been scrambling to relieve that pressure. Scores of unauthorized power projects about which little is known have sprouted nationwide - along with hundreds of official projects, McIlvaine says. Because of this, even careful estimates could be low, both he and Bergesen say.

"Environmental optimists were assuming the world was going to switch to gas, but when you're short of gas you use your own coal," says Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at the University of Dundee, in Scotland. "What you're seeing with China and the others is the cheapness and security of coal just overwhelming the desire to be clean."