03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Coal and Copenhagen

From December 7th to 18th the world's attention will focus on Copenhagen where a global warming treaty will be debated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. But attention should also be focused on less-noticed places around the world, where real cuts in greenhouse gas are taking shape, because one key measure of Copenhagen's success is whether it multiplies real "steel in the ground" low-carbon energy projects like coal plants that eliminate global warming emissions.

Those projects include: an older coal plant in West Virginia that is capturing and sequestering a portion of its carbon dioxide, and a new kind of power plant under construction in Tianjin, China, that is designed from the beginning to produce near-zero-carbon power.

Here's why increasing such projects should be a key measure of Copenhagen's success: To keep the planet's temperature within the bounds of human experience, we will need to reach zero carbon emissions within the next several decades. Not 50 percent of current levels or even 20 percent. Zero. That's far more ambitious than anything being proposed in Copenhagen.

How do we get to zero? Being more efficient in the use of energy will be important. Wind and solar power can provide some carbon-free power. So can other renewable energy sources like tides and geothermal.

But none of these approaches, even together, can come close to displacing all of our energy supplies from fossil fuels like natural gas and, most importantly, coal. Coal alone provides 40 percent of the world's electricity (50 percent in the United States; 80 percent in China) and accounts for about 35 percent of the world's energy-related carbon dioxide.

What's more, China, India and other developing countries plan to double or triple their coal power in the coming decades, because it's cheap and abundant, and other sources are limited. And the United States won't abandon its coal plants, which provide half of the nation's power. The only question is whether we'll get the carbon dioxide along with the coal. And we shouldn't.

Technology that is ready to go today can strip the carbon dioxide out of coal for safe underground storage. That's what's being demonstrated in West Virginia today -- and also in North Dakota, Norway and Algeria, in non-power settings.

But these are pilot-scale plants. We need to leapfrog quickly to full industrial scale -- 10 or 20 full-scale new and retrofit coal power projects with complete carbon removal. We need to show the world that it can be done, and then we need to get on with it. Until we do, this option will be debated endlessly as the planet warms.

Fortunately, companies from China and the United States -- the two countries that together use half of the word's coal and produce half of the world's carbon dioxide -- are already collaborating on projects like these. America's Duke Energy recently signed up to work with China's largest utility, Huaneng Power, on projects in China and the United States that remove carbon from coal and sequester it. A half-dozen other U.S.-China commercial low-carbon projects are in the works.

Chinese and U.S. businesses are leading the way, but governments need to at least follow and support real commercial-scale projects. We don't need more technical exchange and discussion. We need real project support, like site geology from our best national experts, and monitoring and verification of carbon sequestration. And we need hard support, like paying for the carbon stored from the first series of plants.

Copenhagen is unlikely to produce a Kyoto-type agreement on global carbon targets and timetables for carbon reductions. That may come later. But Copenhagen could be a place where the leading nations agree that getting the carbon out of coal is job #1, and where they agree to put real money behind their words.

Building the world's first 20 carbon-free coal plants is not as glamorous as carbon caps or renewable energy targets. But it will provide a crucial pathway to dealing with nearly half of the world's energy carbon emissions. On that pathway the Earth's temperature depends.

Armond Cohen is executive director of the Clean Air Task Force (, an environmental organization advancing clean technology in the United States and China.