The United States and China clash over greenhouse gas emissions.
To understand why it’s so difficult to achieve a meaningful reduction in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, consider recent reports that negotiations between the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, China and the United States, have broken down.
The impasse reflects the uncomfortable reality that no matter what the United States does or does not do, there can be no action without China. But there is little reason to believe that China can be counted on to honor whatever commitments it may make. In this game of global high-stakes greenhouse gas poker, there is little reason to trust the “People’s Republic,” and it will be practically impossible to verify any promises they make.
Were the United States to act unilaterally to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the price of electricity would at least double, according to studies conducted by the Department of Energy. Engineers at many power companies say it will be worse than that, privately and ruefully using the phrase “lights out” to describe the effect that greenhouse gas regulation will have, whether it’s a cap-and-trade program along the lines of Waxman-Markey, or command and control under the Clean Air Act.
In addition to the obvious effect this jump in energy prices would have on consumers, and the poorest consumers in particular, this kind of operating cost escalation would represent a death blow to many American manufacturers. Chinese manufacturers already enjoy significant advantages over their American competitors, not only in labor costs, but in terms of expenditures associated with insurance, liability, loss-control and all of the other expensive features of our over-regulated, over-litigated society. Increasing the cost of energy would destroy any remaining profit margin among many domestic industries that have, so far, resisted the siren call of Asia.
Let’s forget, for the moment, what would happen to the United States’ economy in this scenario. Would a transfer of economic capacity across the Pacific result in a reduction in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions? Almost certainly not. In fact, the more economic capacity transferred to China, the more greenhouse gas emissions are likely to rise.
Global warming alarmists often quote the fact that the United States emits about 19 tons of greenhouse gases per capita, as compared to about 4 and a half tons of greenhouse gases per capita in China. This contrast is often held up as evidence of America’s wasteful ways.
Yet, there is another, more meaningful way to consider greenhouse gas emission rates: in terms of productivity. If you accept the proposition that the global economy requires a certain amount of agricultural, industrial and commercial activity, the best way to measure that activity is in terms of Gross Domestic Product. Measured in terms of GDP, a much different picture emerges. Using 2008 data, it can be shown that the United States emits about 400 tons of greenhouse gases per million dollars of GDP. China, on the other hand, emits about 760 tons of greenhouse gases per million dollars of GDP. Accordingly, the net effect of moving more industrial capacity overseas will be not only to merely relocate sources of greenhouse gas emissions, but to increase the carbon footprint of those sources.
There is little reason to believe, based on that country’s past environmental performance, that China will actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its burgeoning coal-fired power industry, even if it commits to doing so. It has been reliably reported, both in the media and by western visitors to China, that the Chinese often turn existing control devices off when operating their coal-fired power plants. Emissions data would seem to support this proposition. Though the total power generation capacity in China is about three-fourths of US capacity, Chinese power plants emits about double the amount of sulfur dioxide and about ten times the amount of particulate matter (or soot), as compared to power plants in the United States.
There is a very good reason for Chinese power plant operators to flip their control device switches to the off position. It’s the same reason that caused many American power plant operators to do the same thing during the early days of the Clean Air Act in the 1970’s: it costs money, a great deal of money in fact, to operate these devices.
The operative term, used in the power industry, is “parasitic load”. It takes energy to run all of the pumps, motors and other pieces of equipment necessary to keep a power plant operating. The energy used for these purposes represents power produced, but not sold. Operating pollution control devices greatly increases the parasitic load on a plant. In the United States, the parasitic load in a typical coal-fired power plant is around ten per cent of the total amount of power produced.
Now, let’s say that you are a Chinese operator and you realize that you can cut your parasitic load by a third through the simple expedient of shutting down the devices that remove soot and acid gases before they are released into the atmosphere. In a 500 megawatt power plant, assuming an electricity price of six cents per kilowatt, that represents over $8,000,000 dollars per year in additional energy sales. In the absence of any strong, EPA-like organization overseeing your operations, why wouldn’t you flip the switch?
This is the primary reason why Beijing is commonly hailed as the world’s most polluted city. It’s not because the new, much-praised, “state of the art” Chinese power plants aren’t built with the best control technology that the west can provide. They are. Rather, the air quality in Beijing reflects the uncomfortable fact that China often doesn’t care to use those devices. As one American engineer returning from a trip to a Chinese power plant told me:
“The operator apologized for not having the ESP (a device that removes soot) running, but he said that his orders were to pump as much power into the grid as he could, twenty-four seven.”
China can, and probably will, build an army of windmills across their country, but wind is not sufficiently reliable to provide base-load power (i.e., the “baseline” amount of electricity that must be supplied to the grid at all times, as opposed to peak-load power, which is typically generated so serve the “blip” in demand during the working day). Accordingly, coal will surely continue to form the backbone of China’s energy industry. Thus, the only way that China could meaningfully reduce its greenhouse gas emissions would be to utilize carbon dioxide controls at its coal fired power plants. The only technology available to do that, in any substantive way, is to collect the carbon dioxide and inject it deep underground, a process known as carbon sequestration. And that leads us right back to the problem of parasitic load.
The Department of Energy and most energy producers estimate that carbon sequestration will double the parasitic load in a coal-fired power plant. Not double the pollution-control related parasitic load, mind you, but the entire parasitic load. In our example of a 500 MW plant, the parasitic load would jump from ten per cent (50 MW) to twenty per cent (100 MW). This represents over $25 million in lost revenue. Does anyone really believe that the operator of a virtually unregulated Chinese power plant, who is reluctant to part with $8 million to run control equipment he already owns, is going to purchase and operate equipment that will cost him three times as much to run? Does anyone believe that energy-starved China is going to allow that much electricity to be removed from the grid?
Presumably, the United States delegation in Copenhagen understands all of these issues. That would explain the reports of angry words between Chinese representatives and ours. For there are only two real choices if America is determined to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions: Do it on our own and wreck the United States economy. Or do it in cooperation with China and achieve the same destructive result.
Rich Trzupek is a chemist and Principal Consultant at Mostardi Platt Environmental, an environmental consulting firm based in Oak Brook, Illinois. He specializes in air quality issues and is the author of McGraw-Hill’s Air Quality Permitting and Compliance Manual. Rich is a confirmed skeptic with regard to the theory that human activity has caused global warming. He is also a regular contributor at threedonia.com.