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Global boom in coal power – and emissions

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If carbon dioxide gas could be captured at power plants and then pumped underground and permanently "sequestered" in layers of rock, then coal might continue to be used without damaging the climate, concluded a major report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released last week.

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In that light, whether or not China decides to build power plants that sequester carbon dioxide underground will be a central question. Right now, based on those power plants that Platt's has been able to verify, overall construction growth could be tapering off. But none of them is expected to sequester emissions – and estimates of how many plants China expects to build vary widely.

So far there are 100 power plants with firm construction plans compared to 361 built in the previous five years, according to Platts. But other analysts, pointing to official government reports, say the total may be far higher.

Chinese government reports, for instance, tout coal-power plant building far in excess of what Platt's and others have been able to verify – about 170 gigawatts of new coal-power over the past three years, according to China expert Philip Andrews-Speed, director of the Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

"If the Chinese are right then it's a much worse problem than we might think," says Christopher Bergesen, a Platts expert who oversees power-plant data collection. He acknowledges Platts data may be a conservative base line for China. But until China reveals plant-specific data, not just aggregate numbers, he and other researchers can't be sure how fast China is building power plants that spur global warming.

That leaves climate scientists and policy experts wondering how to influence power-plant construction in China and India. A huge factor is whether the EU and the US are able to persuade the Chinese to build plants that capture and sequester CO2. Much depends on the US because China is unlikely to sequester its carbon dioxide if the US does not, analysts say.

"The Chinese won't be able to go forward by themselves," says Dr. Andrews-Speed. "They are going to need, EU, Japan, and US together to help them and set a good example."

Right now, the US is planning to build more than 150 coal-fired power plants that don't sequester their emissions, according to the US Department of Energy. Platts short list of those most likely to be built in five years lists 64 power plants – which would still vault the US into a virtual tie with India at 38,000 megawatts of new output.

If that happens, the US alone would add 250 million tons a year of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere - on top of the billions its power plants already emit. The recent decision by new owners of TXU not to build eight coal-fired power plants gives some reason for hope.

But if the US began building plants that stuff the CO2 underground, the picture could change dramatically, experts say. At least five bills now pending in Congress would effectively put a price on CO2, but just two of those push sequestration.

"The good news is the politicians have their hands on the steering wheel," Dr. Hawkins says. "If they would just turn the wheel toward sequestration, then we don't have to go over this cliff."

Impact on climate models

To date, many climate models have not fully accounted for the worldwide acceleration of coal-plant building, scientists say.

"The phenomenon ... would lead to greater CO2 emissions than most 'business as usual' forecasts project," says Robert Socolow, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University in an e-mail. "Fortunately the world has now begun to take CO2 seriously, and coal-power emissions will be target No. 1 worldwide over the next decade. The fact that the US is waking up at last will give us the opportunity to have a positive effect on CO2 policy in the rest of the world,"he adds.

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