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An escape valve for greenhouse gas

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Even environmentalists are wary. Some see the capture-ready idea as another excuse for power companies to drag their heels on a far more advanced clean-coal technology called integrated gasification combined cycle or IGCC.

"Building new coal-fired plants and betting on vague claims and future promises of technology at least a decade behind IGCC is a bad bet," says David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center. "We've got gasification plants capturing CO2 today."

Still, he would not oppose capture-ready technology for any conventional coal power plant that's about to be built, calling it "a reasonable backup."

For a "negligible cost," China could direct its power-plant developers to at least design their coal-fired plants so they could be cheaply retrofitted, says Jon Gibbins, an energy expert and senior lecturer at the Imperial College of London. "Certainly China is today facing a power shortage, so anything that distracts them even in a small degree from building plants is not seriously considered," Dr. Gibbins says. "Still, I think there are several reasons China might just decide to do it. The Chinese government might order its plants to be built capture ready. And the other possible driver is that there's a strong likelihood money will be coming into China to pay for it."

Beside potential World Bank or other international funding, he says, Kyoto nations that want to earn carbon credits might fund carbon reduction in China to help them meet the treaty's requirements. Chinese plants that were already capture ready would be far cheaper to convert to carbon capture and be most likely to attract such funding.

Leaked memo?

There are also signs the British government likes the idea and could champion it at diplomatic levels, Gibbins says. Support for that notion came on Friday in the form of an apparently leaked diplomatic document that lays out British proposals - including a new "capture ready" plan - for the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in July. British authorities refused to comment on the document or to confirm or deny its authenticity, according to The Scotsman newspaper's website.

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