U.S. Dithers on Clean Energy, but Calls on China to Act

Editor’s Note: The U.S. Department of State recently authored a series of articles on U.S.-China economic relations. With China’s economy and energy needs booming, the latest article lays out the State Department’s concern that China become a responsible energy consumer — even calling on them to develop “cleaner technologies and alternative sources of energy.” While this is a laudable goal for any country, particularly China, this message comes at a time when the current administration and lawmakers in Congress are doing little themselves to support clean, renewable energy.

Most federal efforts beyond supporting traditional fossil generation are largely confined to development of supposed “clean coal” technologies, hydrogen energy, even a new phase of nuclear generation. And much of these efforts, particularly in the hydrogen realm, are coming at the financial expense of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric and other proven clean-energy technologies. It’s also worth noting that this State Department message comes on the heels of China’s central government enacting a national renewable portfolio standard — a national percentage-based requirement for clean energy, the likes of which has been repeatedly shot down when introduced in the U.S. Congress. With that said, the following outlines the State Department’s call for China becoming a responsible energy consumer as expressed by Andrzej Zwaniecki, writing for “The Washington File”, a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. – Editor, RenewableEnergyAccess.com The United States has a strong interest in China’s development as a responsible consumer and producer of energy because the two countries are projected to be the world’s largest energy consumers in coming decades, a U.S. official says. The United States has encouraged other countries to liberalize their energy markets, improve energy efficiency, move towards cleaner technologies and develop alternative sources of energy, the official, who asked not to be identified, said in a March interview. But such policies are much more important in China because of the sheer size and projected growth of its energy demand, the official said. Taken together, the U.S. and Chinese economies consume nearly one-third of world energy production, with the United States accounting for 21 percent of consumption and China 8.5 percent. But China’s demand for energy will grow much faster than the United States’, driven by projected continued dynamic economic growth of that country. Thus “what China is doing to rationalize its energy policy is good for everybody — for itself, for the United States and for the world,” the official said. China’s record on sustainable development is mixed, according to private U.S. energy experts. Chinese industries are energy-intensive, and economy-wide energy waste is significant. The country uses three times more energy for $1 of its gross domestic product than the global average and 4.7 times more than the United States, according to the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). China’s production and use of automobiles is expected to continue increasing rapidly, a development that would significantly boost demand for oil and increase pollution in its cities. China also faces other environmental problems. The country’s carbon dioxide emissions from all sources are projected to grow more rapidly than anywhere else in the world in the next two decades. Such emissions are believed by some scientists to contribute to global warming. In addition, China is expected to continue to rely heavily on its cheap and abundant coal reserves to generate most of its electricity. Power plants burning that coal produce sulfur dioxide emissions, which are a main factor in the formation of acid rains that fall on about 30 percent of China’s total land area. Private U.S. energy experts say China is recognizing its energy problems. In 2004, the State Council, China’s executive body, approved a draft of country’s energy development program for 2004-2020 that covers all major elements of similar programs in industrialized countries such as strategic petroleum reserves, energy diversification and conservation, further exploration and cleaner energy technologies, according to news reports. These are the right policies, says Robert Ebel, director of energy research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington-based research organization. “Whether they follow through remains to be seen,” he said in a March interview. Responding to the challenge of fulfilling the country’s energy needs while keeping related environmental damage to a minimum will be difficult, experts say. China’s government has made some efforts to move in that direction. It has embraced nuclear power generation and coal liquefaction technologies to diminish the country’s dependence on oil imports. It also has implemented a new coal policy, which is expected to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions in “control zones” with high pollution and launched pilot sulfur dioxide emissions trading programs in some areas. In addition, Shanghai has a program to limit the number of drivers in the city, and autos in Beijing were mandated to meet European emissions standards by summer 2004. But “the country still has a long way to go to become a more responsible consumer of energy,” the U.S. official said. Another researcher, Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, a Washington-based research organization, suggests that China will be better off if it does not follow all policies pursued by developed countries. With U.S. support, it probably could become less dependent on energy imports by mostly bypassing oil in its energy plans in favor of next-generation fuels, he suggested in a 2004 article. The Bush administration has been promoting alternative fuels as well as renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technologies both in bilateral contacts with China and through multilateral efforts. The United States and China have collaborated on a number of science and technology projects and issues related to the oil and gas industries. Lee Gebert, China desk officer at the U.S. Energy Department, said in a March interview that the two countries have had a good and successful relationship, as exemplified by projects on high-energy physics, clean coal, coal liquefaction, geothermal heat pumps, efficiency standards, energy-efficient buildings and in other areas. Ebel said that one of the most important goals of U.S. energy policy toward China should be helping that country make wider use of clean-coal technologies. He suggested that China is unlikely to be able to supply enough electricity for its needs and simultaneously reduce sulfur dioxide emissions without outside support. The United States, perhaps with Japanese help, should do even more to advance those technologies because Chinese sulfur dioxide emissions have become a regional problem. Carried by winds, they have begun affecting neighboring countries, he said.


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