But here’s the paradox. The past five years has seen a concerted effort by the government to 'clean' up its coal production, shutting small unsafe mines and power stations, and moving the biggest polluters out of cities. Projects like the IGCC plants stem from this move, but so do more controversial ones. In Ordos, Inner Mongolia, the world's biggest coal to liquid diesel plant has opened. Having relatively little gas and even less natural oil reserves, the worrying signs are that China is looking to coal to provide fuel for its transport too.
While the facility, run by Shenhua, looks clean and non polluting – like the IGCC plant – it is the most environmentally damaging of all. Cracking the hydrocarbons in coal to produce diesel generates up to twice as much CO2 as using oil, and the process requires enormous volumes of water – 6.5 tonnes of water per tonne of liquid fuel. Such quantities would be tricky to manage near a river system, but in the dry desert, they are disastrous. Water is being pumped from an aquifer more than 70 kilometres (43 miles) away. And of the estimated 3 million tonnes of CO2 produced annually, the plant's owners say that perhaps 100,000 tonnes could be stored in saline aquifers nearby.
China is still developing and improving access to energy, and this is vital if the country is to continue its necessary growth to lift millions out of poverty. But the nation already produces a quarter of global carbon emissions, making it the biggest polluter. If China's technological prowess is to be matched by environmental commitment, schemes like this will have to be abandoned – the world simply cannot afford for China to run its cars on coal to liquid fuel.
So what are the alternatives? China has been forging ahead with electrification – its high-speed trains zip across the country at hundreds of kilometres an hour – and electricity can be produced from a range of low-carbon sources including nuclear, wind and solar. China is already investing heavily in wind, carpeting areas of the Gobi in turbines, and it aims to send the power generated from the remote north on high-voltage cross-country transmission lines to populated cities.
Giant solar farms are also springing up across the country from the Gobi desert to sites closer to the end users, including a 20MW farm in Xuzhou in Jiangsu province owned by GLC-Poly. China is the biggest producer of solar PV panels and a large part of the reason for the technology's rapid fall in price. But with the export market stalled, it remains to be seen whether the domestic market can take over.
Impressive though the investment in solar and wind has been, power generated by renewables is simply supplementing that which is generated from coal, not replacing it. In order to begin decarbonising the economy – a tough call, while the country is still industrialising – China needs to be bolder.
The biggest reason for optimism is its ambitious plans for a carbon trading system. The world's second biggest economy is trialling seven carbon emissions trading schemes in cities and provinces across the nation, starting next year. Putting a price on carbon will make sequestering carbon dioxide financially attractive for IGCC plants, and could well out-price coal-to-liquid-fuel technology.
But perhaps most importantly, it will bind forever the economics of development and pollution in the rush to commercialise new energy technologies – rather than following the usual ”pollute now, pay later” trajectory of every other country. The world depends on China getting it right first time.