In China and the U.S., Measuring Tolerances

Bird's nest, BEIJING

A long time ago, in the mid-1980s, I wrote about New York City’s infrastructure modernization in Manhattan Inc., an upscale business magazine that no longer exists. It was a perfect gig for a writer who as a kid counted bridge overpasses on the highway during the regular family drive from suburban New York to suburban Boston to visit my grandparents. I loved watching new skyscrapers get slotted into New York City’s skyline. I was fascinated with the bulldozers and road graders at Interstate highway construction sites. In my first weeks as a New York Times reporter I spent an evening with a Port Authority construction crew assigned to upgrade the ventilation system in the Lincoln Tunnel. It was classic boy stuff.

Infrastructure, in short, is the collection of basic civic equipment – roads and highways, rail lines, reservoirs, dams, water and sewage pipes and treatment plants, transmission lines, broadband, airports, public buildings, parks and plazas  – that civilizations require to function efficiently and provide citizens a reasonable quality of life. Infrastructure is the public investments that nations make to advance their economies and provide for their citizens. Essentially, infrastructure is a measure of a nation’s vision, will to invest, and its capacity to join engineering and design in service of the public interest.

Heads of state and their aides think of infrastructure in terms of budgets and spending. But architects and engineers have a more fun phrase  –  “tolerances” – that they use to describe their work.  Tolerances are a measurement of precision — the refinements of spacing, line, angle, materials, and craftsmanship that describe the quality of design and construction. Basically tolerances define a nation’s capacity to make the investments –  and for designers, developers, and contractors the capacity to sweat the details to produce projects that last 150 years in instead of 15.

Infrastructure and Tight Tolerances
Let’s just put it this way: China knows tolerances. After spending more than two weeks in Beijing and Tianjin, it’s plainly evident that China’s drive to build its infrastructure and the nation’s rapid rise to the top of the world’s economic heaps is told in its ability to fit the pieces together to achieve state-of-the-art design tolerances.

The most exceptional example that I found on this trip, my first to China, was the Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, a 2.5 million-square foot marble, glass, and polished stainless steel showcase of Chinese design and construction technology. There is no comparable exhibition center in the United States, and certainly none that was constructed in eight months, as the Meijiang center was earlier this year before it opened in September. The way the interior steel trusses supported the roof 10 stories above the center floor, the close fit of the fine-grained wood walls, and polished marble floors, and the use of natural light and noise absorbing carpets made the gigantic building seem almost cozy, airy, and exceptionally comfortable. Just as impressive was the great plaza outside, as large as a military parade ground, a perfectly flat expanse of marble paving tiles so precisely fitted together that the lines between the tiles were thousands of feet long and as straight as a gun shot.beijing-train-station-

The Impossible Plaza That’s Possible
Karl Burkhart, a communications specialist with Tcktcktck, and a trained designer with a masters in architecture, also marveled at the convention center and the plaza. He told me that in the United States, such a building would take two years to plan and design with available computer programs and equipment. The speed with which China executed the Meijiang convention center indicated that Chinese architects used state-of-the-art three dimensional design programs and constructed the building as they developed the design. Moreover, he said, the great marble plaza would not even be attempted in the U.S. because even if it could be done – which he doubted – it would be so expensive that “no American architect in his right mind would even suggest it.”

I’ve spent weeks at a time in every state in the United States except Hawaii, and have now traveled to over 20 nations on four continents, and when it comes to the overall scope and quality of infrastructure, the U.S. remains among the global leaders. Of special note in the U.S. today is the competition among cities to build new light rail lines that join neighborhoods to each other and to downtowns.

But the current scope of infrastructure work in the recession-dragged, politically daffy U.S. pales in comparison to what China is achieving today. The other showcases of design and engineering tolerance are China’s high-speed rail lines, and the fabulous modern train stations that launch and catch the bullet trains. The distance from Beijing to Tianjin is crossed by a snow white train with blue accents that streaks at 205 miles per hour on an elevated track. Outside, the flat landscape flies by. Inside there is no quiver, no shake, no tremble, and no noise except the muffled sound of rushing air. The non-stop 90-mile trip takes 30 minutes.

In Tianjin the train launches from a crowded and spotless station that is lit naturally with sunlight pouring through a grand glass roof. In Beijing, the train arrives in an even newer station where the platforms are paved in mirror-shine marble and the waiting room, distinguished by towering blue, green, and red LED arrival and departure boards, has even more natural light from windows that line the roof. China has built 4,000 miles of high-speed rail and has 6,000 more under construction or planned.

An Era Passed For U.S.
It’s not that the United States hasn’t constructed some of the world’s iconic infrastructure. The Hoover Dam, more than 700 feet tall and built to generate power by holding back the mighty Colorado, was the highest dam in the world when it opened in 1936. The Empire State Building was, for decades, the tallest building in the world. The Golden Gate bridge spans the Pacific entrance to San Francisco Bay. The 40,000-plus mile Interstate highway network is a global envy. The great metropolitan skylines of New York, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles are recognizable around the world.

It’s just that the exuberance of China’s construction program, and its accompanying attention to detail and tight engineering tolerances, are emblems of a country that’s so clearly saying “It’s our time!” Meanwhile in the United States, we seem an old and tired nation, unwilling to marshal the unity of purpose that it takes to build a high-speed rail network, or great solar and wind farms, or new smart transmission grids or even the great soaring buildings that once distinguished our nation.

New construction has come to a near halt as a result of the Great Recession. And where our architects thrive, and where we’re putting our cultural resources is in new stadiums like the one in Dallas that has one of the world’s biggest TV screens, or New York where the Giants and Jets play in one sky-box extravaganza and the Yankees play in another. We’re playing games while China plays us.

China is certainly awake in the 21st century. The corridor between Beijing and the flat lands south of Tianjn is one immense construction zone. Every quarter mile, on both side of the rail line and highway, towers rise in clumps. Not one at a time, but in groups of 10 or 15. The International Energy Agency reported today that China has overtaken the United States as the world’s largest consumer of energy.  It’s another of China’s world firsts, which also include being the largest producer of climate-changing emissions, the largest car market in the world, the largest solar and wind markets, and the fastest growing industrial economy.

Within a decade China could also surpass the United States as the largest economy. It looks inevitable. The American century ended on 9/11. The soaring Chinese century, and its tight tolerances, is very clearly past the lift-off phase.

— Keith Schneider

Tianjin conference-center-with-man

Despite Divide Inside the Tianjin Climate Conference, China and U.S. Are Cooperating in Race To Deploy Advanced Coal Technology

GreenGem advance coal plant

TIANJIN, China – Though Chinese workers this week celebrated the 61st anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, a holiday season as significant as July 4 in the United States, a swarm of construction laborers at China’s GreenGen coal-fired gasification power plant were busy welding pipes, fitting massive joints, and bending steel for forms to be filled with concrete.

Since construction on the $1 billion project began in June 2009, said Li Liangshi, the deputy chief engineer, the dusty construction site has been a nonstop 24/7 hive of activity for 2,100 workers. Next year, the consortium of companies financing the project, five of them Chinese plus Peabody Coal, an American producer, plan to start operations.

GreenGen’s principle purpose is demonstrating advanced Chinese technology to burn coal much more efficiently than conventional power plants, remove many troubling air pollutants, and prove that its climate-changing carbon emissions can be safely captured. Much of the sequestered carbon will be pumped into oil wells to increase production in one of the China’s mature oil fields.

“China has a lot of coal,” said Deborah Seligsohn, the principal advisor of the World Resource Institute’s China Climate and Energy Program, who joined a Clean Air Task Force–USCAN-sponsored tour of the plant on Thursday.  “This project deals with efficiency and pollution abatement in a fairly clean way.”

Outside Stalled Negotiations, Promising Steps
This week the UN climate negotiations inside the expansive Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center here have been stymied, in large part by a dispute between China and the United States about how the two countries take action to combat climate change and measure progress toward those ends.

Outside the closed negotiating sessions, though, a series of side events convened by NGOs and governments have detailed the progress, some of it quite impressive, that both countries are making to advance clean technology and energy efficiency that are intended to simultaneously build economic vibrancy while lowering carbon emissions. In some cases, Chinese and American companies are cooperating on clean energy and efficiency projects.

The trip to GreenGen illustrated both the competition and cooperation between China and the U.S. to develop the tools and technology to burn coal more efficiently, and to safely dispose of its dangerous emissions. In terms of investment and the number of projects, the U.S. and China are both working to perfect the technology, design and deploy the equipment, and command the potential multi-billion dollar annual market for what both countries call “clean coal” power, but more accurately can be called “advanced coal.”

GreenGen will test gasification technology developed by China’s Thermal Power Research Institute (TPRI). TPRI has licensed the gasification technology deployed at GreenGen to Houston-based Future Fuels LLC. Future Fuels plans to use the technology at its Good Spring IGCC project in Pennsylvania, which it expects will deliver 270-megawatts of electricity while capturing over 50 percent of the CO2 output initially and nearly 100 percent by 2020.

Coal in the China, U.S. Path To Lower Carbon Future
Coal’s influence in both countries on climate change is significant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported last year that coal combustion at American utilities accounts for 2.7 billion tons of the roughly 6 billion tons of annual U.S. carbon emissions. In rapidly developing China, coal accounts for 80 percent of the 6.3 billion tons of carbon emissions, or about a quarter of all the climate-changing emissions globally.

Both governments, along with utilities and manufacturers see the need to reduce coal’s influence on global warming, and an opportunity to build economic strength in reaching that goal. Last November, during a trip to China, President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao formally announced the establishment of a joint Clean Energy Research Center to collaborate on the science and development of low-carbon energy, and to cooperate specifically on generating energy from coal with much less pollution. In March, Steven Chu, the American secretary of energy, announced that over the next five years the Energy Department would invest $37.5 million in the joint center to support research conducted at a facility in the U.S. and another in China.

The United States, according to the Department of Energy, also is spending $3.4 billion to leverage $8 billion more in private investments to build a national array of plants that demonstrate CCS technology, and that showcase new combustion techniques.

Advanced Coal Projects
They include the $1 billion U.S. investment, just announced in September, for FutureGen, to build a high-tech oxygen equipped coal boiler unit to an existing 200-megawatt unit at an American Energy Resources plant in Meredosia, Illinois, and then deploy CCS technology to sequester the carbon emissions. The DOE also just approved a $308 million investment in a $2.8 billion Kern County, California plant to develop cleaner combustion technology and carbon sequestration techniques. Other investments include $350 million toward a $1.7 billion a state of the art integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plant with carbon emissions directed to producing more oil in old wells in Texas, and $36 million for a $2.15 billion IGCC plant in Minnesota. Private IGCC plants are under development in Indiana and Pennsylvania as well, and the Duke Power plant in Indiana is testing CCS storage techniques.

According to a recent study by the Brookings Institution U.S. and Chinese companies are collaborating on a number of projects. In August 2009, Duke Energy signed a memorandum of understanding with Huaneng for developing renewable and clean energy technologies. In September 2009, Southern Company and KBR Inc. agreed to license their IGCC technology to the Beijing Guoneng Yinghua Clean Energy Engineering Company. Peabody Coal is an investor in the GreenGen project. Huaneng joined the FutureGen Industrial Alliance.

Here in Tianjin, the GreenGen project is at the head of a pack of Chinese power plants designed to burn coal more efficiently and to develop and prove CCS techniques. China has built over 20 supercritical and ultra-supercritical power plants that operate at extremely high water temperatures and pressures that produce much higher efficiencies, producing more power with less coal, and thus lower emissions per megawatt of power generated.

According to the World Resources Institute, China has developed and approved seven major energy projects to demonstrate CCS techniques, and to develop more efficient energy generating practices. They include the 845-megawatt Huaneng Gaobeidian Co-Generation plant in Beijing, the first in China to fully test CO2 capture, and features a full suite of environmental controls. During winter months, steam from the plant is used for district heating, and efficiency can be has high as 84 percent. Engineers estimate the plant uses about 400,000 tons less coal annually than a similarly-sized conventional plant.

GreenGen Could Be Big Step
GreenGen represents the next step in China’s drive for higher efficiency and lower pollution in generating power from coal. When the first of three phases opens next year, GreenGen will be the first utility-scale IGCC power plant in China, and one of the few operating in the world.

When fully operational in 2014, Chinese officials assert, Greengen will generate 650-megawatts at 60 percent to 80 percent efficiency – about twice the efficiency of conventional coal-fired power plants – and dispose of its climate-changing emissions through carbon capture and storage technology.

If the plant is a success, said Jiang Kejun, a director of research for the Energy Research Institute, a unit of the National Development and Reform Commission, China is prepared to build 20 more such gasification and CCS power plants. “We want to make sure it works,” he said.

— Keith Schneider

Greengem advanced coal plant - Tianjin

In Tianjin, China and the U.S. Look A Lot Alike

Tianjin construction site

On opposite sides of the Pacific, leaders of the world’s two biggest economies and carbon polluters are plainly thinking about clean energy to power up their economies and cool the climate.

In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced their intention to extend vehicle efficiency standards that went into effect in April in order meet a national goal of 60 miles per gallon average fuel economy by 2025.

President Obama, in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine promised to keep pushing the clean energy and climate action envelope. And in his Saturday national radio address, the president attacked the Republican campaign plan to scrap clean energy incentives.  “We can go back to the failed energy policies that profited the oil companies but weakened our country,” the president said. “We can go back to the days when promising industries got set up overseas.  Or we can go after new jobs in growing industries.”

China Making Clean Energy Progress But Coal Dominates
Meanwhile in Tianjin, where China is hosting its first U.N. climate conference this week, Chinese officials also are touting clean energy initiatives. They include mandatory building standards established five years ago that are lowering energy demand, new offshore windfarms that supply as much power as big coal-fired power plants, new cities built on principles of energy efficiency and conservation, and a national commitment to lower the levels of carbon pouring into the atmosphere.

What distinguishes China from the United States is that there’s no political opposition getting in the way. China’s national policy vector is very plainly pointing in the direction of incorporating more clean energy technology, and energy efficient practices into its economy. The U.S. gear at the national level, with Republicans campaigning on a message attacking climate science, the Senate unable to act on a comprehensive bill, and investors unsettled by the roiled politics, is in danger of slipping into reverse if it hasn’t already done so.

What makes the countries similar, though, is how far each needs to go and what both countries are willing to do to really make a dent in reducing global carbon emissions. That, of course, has been the central issue confronting negotiators at UN climate meetings for several years, and it’s the single biggest issue in Tianjin.

Very briefly, while both nations are investing considerable sums in clean energy development, China and the U.S. also are tightly hugging the existing fossil fuel economy as essential to national stability and well-being. The consequences of that are considerable for the environment and the rest of the world.

The U.S. produces and burns 1 billion tons of coal annually, uses almost 7 billion barrels of oil, and last year produced 5.8 billion tons of carbon emissions. China meanwhile, according to state economic agencies, will mine and combust around 3.15 billion tons of coal this year, consume more than 3 billion barrels of oil, and produce around 6.3 billion tons of carbon emissions.

Soaring Energy Demand In China, Off The Chart Emissions
While U.S. energy demand and carbon emissions are slipping as a result of the Great Recession, China’s energy demand is soaring. By 2020 according to government projections, China will use 4.2 billion tons of coal – which accounts for 80 percent of its emissions.  And even if China meets its 40 to 45 percent reduction in “carbon intensity” by 2020,  an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council projects that China’s carbon emissions will essentially double by the end of the decade.

Tianjin climate negotiators, aware of the stakes and stymied by the pace, press ahead here to draw a bit closer to global agreements on financing for developing nations to pursue clean energy, conserving forests, reducing the effects of climate change, verification and transparency, and other issues. The annual global climate summit in Cancun, Mexico approaches at the end of November. The new UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, said yesterday there is a dire need to show the world’s citizens that the negotiations are making “visible progress.”

Essentially what she meant is that negotiators need to change the vector of a grim situation. She commended NGO groups for generating grassroots support, including, which is holding its Global Work Party on Saturday at thousands of sites in nearly 200 countries.

Indeed, there’s time, bushels of good ideas, and a tide of public will to act. The NRDC and Environment America calculated that reaching the 60 mile per gallon mileage standard in the U.S. by 2025 would save consumers $101 billion in 2030, cut oil use by roughly 1 billion barrels, and reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution by 470 million tons, the equivalent of taking nearly 70 million vehicles off the road.

And here in China, before the Tianjin climate meeting opened, leaders in the Guangzhou, the nation’s third largest city, said that they were spending $37 billion on 34 projects to reduce fuel consumption, increase energy efficiency, and lower climate emissions. The projects include advances in public transit, replacing low efficiency lighting with LED technology, and generating a sizable share of the city’s power with green energy sources.

— Keith Schneider

In Tianjin, Fresh Hope For Climate Progress

Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center

TIANJIN, China – In a gesture that signaled more urgent engagement to cool the planet, the United Nation’s chief climate negotiator today opened this nation’s first international climate conference by sealing a symbolic Great Climate Wall of China with an ancient proverb. Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and climate expert, who in May was named the new executive secretary for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stamped the proverb – “with everyone’s determination, we can win anything” – on a mosaic wall of 4,000 portaits of people from China and around the world concerned about the increasing evidence of the warming climate.

“The symbolism of this mural is significant,” said Figueres. “Addressing climate change is not just about governments working collectively. It’s also about all of us working collectively and deciding what kind of stamp we want to leave on human history.”

The six-day Tianjin meeting, which ends on Saturday, is the latest opportunity for 3,000 participants from 176 nations to make progress on a global climate agreement, and sets the tone for the annual two-week UNFCCC climate summit, which this year occurs from November 29 to December 10 in Cancun, Mexico. The conference is being held in the brand new and immense 230,000-square meter Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center (see pix above), which opened earlier this year after just 8 months of construction, according to conference organizers.

Activism Supported By UN
Figueres described the need to make the transition from the individual actions that nations are taking to reduce global warming to collective global steps that can be formalized in a binding treaty. Her participation today in an event organized by the Global Campaign For Climate Action (GCCA), Tck tck tck, and Greenpeace was clearly intended to signal a new resolve at the United Nations to generate more political and public attention on the actions countries are taking to reduce carbon emissions. UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres Seals Great Climate WallWith her animated support for more civic activism, Figueres’ unmistakable message is to encourage public activism as a tool to push negotiators to a binding agreement. She also sought to spotlight the broad international support among citizens at the grassroots, including’s Global Work Party on October 10, which has organized nearly 6,000 events in 183 countries

Her tone and tilt are a departure from her more cautious predecessor, Danish diplomat Yvo de Boer. Figueres called the GCCA’s international work to mobilize citizens for climate action “important, significant, and impressive,” and concluded her remarks with this: “Thank you for the inspiration. I will take it into the negotiations this week.”

Government negotiators and non-governmental organizations said today that the Tianjin and Cancun meetings could produce enough progress for legal decisions that launch a global system to preserve forests, establish a financial system to coordinate adaptation and emissions reduction projects, formalize emissions reductions commitments, and establish a system to review progress toward those goals. The question is whether the Cancun meeting will set a stronger negotiating foundation that can lead to a formal international agreement between all nations in time for the 2011 climate summit in South Africa or the 2012 summit in South Korea.

Though the United States and China, the two largest carbon polluters, have been reluctant to set a binding global emissions limit, there is evidence that nations want to reach that goal. Last year in Copenhagen, heads of state and climate negotiators from 28 countries that are responsible for 80 percent of climate-changing emissions developed the Copenhagen Accord. The accord is a political agreement that indicates nations individually and collectively should check carbon emissions sufficiently to limit the rise in global temperature to less than 2 degrees Centigrade. In the accord, which was reached on the last day of the Copenhagen summit, developed nations also committed to provide $30 billion from 2010 to 2012 to assist developing nations make the transition from a carbon-based to a clean energy economy.

Hope and  Evidence That Nations Are Moving Steadily Toward Big Steps
This month, the UNFCC reported that 139 nations, including the 27-member European Union, have agreed to the accord or have expressed their intent to sign on, The UNFCCC reported in March that it received submissions of national pledges to cut or limit emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 from 75 countries, which account for all but 20 percent of global emissions. In addition 41 industrialized countries formally communicated their economy-wide targets and 35 developing countries have “communicated information on the nationally appropriate actions they are planning, provided they receive the appropriate support in terms of finance and technology.”

In an interview in March, Yvo de Boer, the outgoing UNFCCC executive secretary who managed the Copenhagen climate summit, said, “You can argue that while Copenhagen failed in a legal sense, it was a success in a political sense. The question is now how you take that forward.”

There are as many answers sweeping through Tianjin’s modern and vast conference hall here as negotiators and participants. The focus, as it was in Copenhagen and will be in Cancun is action on climate warming that can be formalized in a written agreements. This week negotiators and the world will gain more insight into what nations are willing to do to accelerate the clean energy economy, reduce the cutting in the world’s forests, and adapt to warming temperatures.

And just as it’s been in the previous meetings over the last several years, China and the United States will suck up most of this week’s attention and concern. There is good reason for that. It’s true that India is acting to reduce its carbon emissions and is expanding solar power, Mexico is adopting new vehicle efficiency standards, and the European Union invested $41 billion last year in clean energy and more than half of the continents new power production in 2009 came from renewable energy sources.

China and U.S. Center of Attention
Still, China and the U.S. are collectively pursuing a kind of schizophrenic energy and climate strategy that by necessity commands the world’s focus.

China’s energy consumption last year was the world’s highest, equivalent to 2.3 billion tons of oil, 0.4 percent more than the U.S. energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency. Moreover, demand for energy is rising faster in China than any country, and it is the largest producer of climate emissions, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy. And though Chinese officials say they are meeting the goal, announced last year in Copenhagen, of a 40 to 45 percent reduction in carbon intensity by 2020, an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council concludes that China’s carbon emissions will essentially double over the decade to more than 12 billion tons a year.

The basic reason is that even as China invested $35.6 billion last year in clean energy development, announced closures of hundreds of inefficient coal-fired power plants, and became the unmistakable global leader in solar manufacturing, it also said it will increase coal production by 2020 to over 4.2 billion metric tons annually, an increase of 33 percent from the 3.15 billion tons the country will mine and consume this year, according to the China National Coal Association. China produces and burns more coal than any other country -three times more than the U.S. – and coal supplies 70 percent of the nation’s total energy demand.

The U.S. meanwhile passed legislation in 2009 to invest roughly $100 billion in clean energy development, energy efficiency, and fuel-saving transit, and became the largest generator of wind energy in the world. The Environmental Protection Agency, acting at the direction of the White House, formalized in April new rules to significantly improve fuel mileage efficiency in vehicles and light trucks that will conserve energy and contribute substantially to lower carbon emissions, which have been going down in the U.S. since 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the Department of Energy. Yet conservatives in the House and Senate insist that climate change is a scientific fraud, candidates are running this year on campaigns to block any national effort to curb emissions, and the American oil industry is spending an estimated $100 billion annually to perpetuate the fossil fuel era by developing “unconventional” sources of oil and natural gas from tar sands and deep shales that produce more carbon emissions than “conventional” fuel sources.

For both nations, the negotiations about limiting carbon emissions is impeded by economic priorities. Clearly both countries embrace the existing fossil fuel economy as essential to national stability and well-being. Both countries also are pursuing clean energy development; China produces seven percent of its energy from renewable sources; the U.S. produces eight percent.

What’s troublesome is that while the Obama administration continues to press hard for new jobs and investment in the clean energy sector, the U.S. Congress does not seem to view the opportunities from pursuing low-carbon clean energy development as clearly as China’s leaders appear to at the moment.

“A decade ago China made one percent of the world’s solar panels,” said Representative Edward Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts, in September during a House hearing of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “Today it makes nearly half of them. The $15 billion worth of solar panels China exported last year was more valuable than America’s corn, beef, and chicken exports combined. China is no longer coming. They are here. They ate our lunch, and they are moving on to our dinner.”

This week China is putting on display a number of its clean-tech breakthroughs in coal production and clean technology manufacturing. The U.S. Climate Action Network has organized several tours of facilities later in the week. We’ll bring you reports from each.

— Keith Schneider, with additional reporting from Jonathan Adams

Coal plant plume in Tianjin, China

In Tianjin, Making A Small Dent On Climate Action

Tianjin, UN Climate conference
TIANJIN, China — I’m in Tianjin, China today (see pix above) and for the next week to report on the UN Climate Conference, the first ever held in China. I spent much of the day in a Climate Action International meeting with activists from around the planet, though there were many fewer here than attended the UN climate meetings in Barcelona and Copenhagen last year. Everybody is talking about steps forward and preserving the UN negotiating process, a much different message than the big breakthrough that seemed possible in 2009. The American NGO, U.S. Climate Action Network, where I serve as a senior writer, has scheduled a number of events, including a briefing on China’s coal production and consumption, that will be useful.

The world rightfully views China as the leading force in what could turn out to be the Chinese century. Who really knows since its 2010 and early. Still Warren Buffet and Bill Gates were in Beijing last week talking to China’s growing number of billionaires about philanthropy. The Hurun Rich List, the Chinese equivalent of the Forbes 400, counts 400 to 500, more than in the U.S., according to its director. Last week China launched its latest rocket, testing its ability to circumnavigate the moon in preparation for an unmanned moon landing in 2013. I rode the bullet train here last night from Beijing at 330 km/hr or 205 mph. LED manufacturing in China encompasses 3,000 companies and very clearly, if you arrive here at night to see Tianjin’s modern buildings outlined against the dark sky, the city’s developers are enamored with the technology. The Shanghai Expo that got underway on October 1 is based on a theme this year of metropolitan sustainability — clean energy, transit, conservation, parks, and energy efficiency.

If you have the idea that China is on a roll, a few days immersion here just confirms it. On the other hand, it’s not hard to find the burrs in the machine of progress. The sun is still cloaked more times than not in thick air pollution. The country is planning to triple coal production even as it touts progress in clean energy development. Millions of China’s urban residents rid bodily wastes and shower in closet-sized and mold-ridden combined bathroom units that most American campgrounds wouldn’t tolerate. The glaciers of the Himalayas, China’s primary southern water source, are melting faster than the Arctic. And Chinese industry is dangerous and dirty. Last week a mine supervisor in Shanxi Province, in China’s north, received a suspended death sentence for conspiracy, bribery, and other crimes associated with the rupture of an illegal iron ore tailings pond that unleashed a toxic flood and landslide that killed 277 people in 2008.

Let’s just say this week is going to be intensely interesting.

— Keith Schneider

Tianamen Square on National Day, 2010