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VIEWPOINT: Count on China to act against climate change

KULM, N.D. -- Opponents of a national climate policy often point to China's rapid development of coal-based energy and rising CO2 emissions. They argue that U.S. commitments to greenhouse gas reductions will put us at a competitive disadvantage b...

KULM, N.D. -- Opponents of a national climate policy often point to China's rapid development of coal-based energy and rising CO2 emissions. They argue that U.S. commitments to greenhouse gas reductions will put us at a competitive disadvantage because China will fail to respond accordingly.

This view represents a dangerous misunderstanding of the situation in China. Continued opposition to comprehensive federal energy and climate legislation deprives American companies of incentives needed to commercialize low-carbon energy technologies that will dominate our future energy economy -- all while China charges ahead.

Let me share a few examples from my two recent trips to China taken to assess that country's progress in developing next-generation energy technologies.

-- First, I toured Hangzhou Boiler Works in eastern China. The factory was making General Electric coal gasifiers for Duke Energy's advanced power plant under construction in Indiana that is expected to capture and store a substantial portion of its CO2 emissions.

This American technology being made in China for export to the U.S. speaks volumes. Even more telling, the same company was making Chinese-designed gasifiers for advanced power plants with CO2 capture. These plants will be built in China before anything comparable comes on-line in the U.S.

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-- Next, I visited ENN Group, a diversified energy production, distribution and technology firm near Beijing.

ENN began as a small natural gas company in the mid-1980s. Today, it has more than 26,000 employees and an ultramodern research campus and university.

ENN is engaged in a breathtaking range of enterprises, spanning the design and manufacture of the world's largest thin-film solar panel to operation of advanced coal-based chemical and energy facilities.

As a North Dakotan from a state rich in lignite coal, I found especially significant ENN's development of a commercial-scale underground coal gasification project. It will turn lignite into electricity, substitute natural gas and liquid fuels, capture CO2 in the process and then use that CO2 to grow algae for biodiesel production.

ENN has undertaken this ambitious effort with its own proprietary Chinese technologies.

-- I also took part in an energy summit in Beijing, one attended by hundreds of Chinese and only a small handful of Westerners.

What struck me was the enthusiasm and ambition with which industry and government officials are embracing the opportunities of the low-carbon energy revolution.

The Chinese understandably seek the same economic status as the U.S., Japan and Europe, and they see achievement in energy efficiency, renewable energy and management of CO2 emissions from coal as central to being a prosperous and responsible economic power.

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In fact, China already is the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels and wind turbines. China is moving more aggressively than the U.S. on energy efficiency. And China has dramatically surpassed the U.S. in leading the low-carbon technology transformation with coal.

China has enormous environmental problems to be sure. It faces the Herculean task of slowing and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while bringing hundreds of millions more of its 1.3 billion citizens out of poverty.

But the current U.S. climate policy debate ignores how far China has come in the low-carbon energy race.

A dose of humility on our part is in order, and recognizing basic facts would be a start. It's ironic to make China the bogeyman for its lack of binding CO2 reduction targets. The U.S. has steadfastly refused such limits for nearly 20 years.

Moreover, on a per capita basis -- the only ethical measure by which to compare -- Americans consume four times more energy than Chinese do. By any fair standard, we need to step up to the plate.

Make no mistake. We will respond to climate change. But if we continue to delay implementing policies that put a market price on carbon, we will leave innovative energy companies and entrepreneurs in our region and around the country to compete with both hands tied behind their backs.

The outcome is both predictable and avoidable: We will be left importing technology solutions from other countries -- and true to form, we'll blame China and others for our mistakes.

Crabtree is policy director at the Great Plains Institute and ranches south of Kulm.

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