A couple of weeks into the early reporting for a story on the prospects for advanced coal use in China, which I wrote for the latest issue of Nature, I started to get nervous. I had already talked to several Western researchers and observers, but our first major contact in China fell through (for reasons that were never entirely clear) and the dozens of emails I sent out to Chinese scientists and policymakers simply disappeared into a void.
But our thesis seemed sound, and everybody I talked to who had experience in China suggested that things would fall into place once I got on the ground, made a few contacts and then started working the network via cell-phone. In the end, we decided to give it a go.
Jane Qiu, a Nature correspondent stationed in Beijing, was able to set up several interviews in advance, and we had a clean coal conference in Shanghai as a backstop. And earlier reporting eventually paid off in a big way as a few key industry and university contacts came through, just days before I hopped on the plane.
As hoped, once I was able to secure a few cell phone numbers, introduce myself with trusted references and meet with people in Beijing, the doors opened – even faster and wider than expected. Information flows differently in China, but it does flow. Jane helped out with many of the logistics (sending me text messages in Chinese characters, for instance, so that taxi drivers would know where to deliver me), came along on several interviews and in a couple of cases offered her services as an interpreter.
The results of these labours came out in the latest Nature, a special edition on China, featuring news features, reviews, commentaries and an editorial on the emerging superpower. In the story, we tried to take a more detailed look not at the stunning pace of coal development in China, which has been widely reported, but at the kinds of technologies that are being deployed. As it turns out, the perception that China is building antiquated coal plants based on any old technology is itself a bit dated; companies are building high-efficiency plants, tearing down old ones and installing conventional pollution controls at truly astonishing rates.
China is also pushing the frontiers in coal gasification, largely for chemical production at present although there’s a significant shift toward liquid fuels. The latter trend is ominous indeed, but gasification, if deployed for power production with carbon capture and sequestration, could be a foundation for cleaner coal use in the decades to come. Time will tell whether China’s expertise, energy and commitment in this arena can be harnessed to this effect.