China and the United States established eight new pacts this week to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Half of these announcements focused on a single climate change mitigation measure—carbon dioxide capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).

The announcement came just prior to the sixth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting where both countries discuss their shared economic and environmental challenges and opportunities. China and the United States are world’s leaders when it comes to CCUS research and development, and this week’s agreements build on a long history of CCUS collaboration between the two nations. In fact, China-US partnership on CCUS has in many respects now left the theoretical feasibility realm and entered the “steel-in-the-ground” phase.

A History of CCUS in China and the United States

CCUS involves trapping carbon dioxide emissions from sources like coal-fired power plants and either reusing them or storing them so they won’t enter the atmosphere. There’s much interest in using CCUS as a climate change mitigation strategy, and the first tranche of global deployments of the integrated CCUS process are now underway.

Collaboration on CCUS between the United States and China is not new. Each country operates its own ambitious R&D program, funding various aspects of CCUS technology development—from laboratory studies to large-scale demonstrations employing world’s most advanced monitoring techniques. The U.S. CCUS research program began before 2000, and China’s R&D program dates back to at least 2005. Collaboration between the United States and China on CCUS also began in 2005.

New Partnerships on CCUS

A series of agreements were signed on Tuesday between companies and research entities, including the following:

  • Huaneng Clean Energy Research Institute and Summit Power Group LLC agreed to collaborate on clean coal power generation technology (IGCC and CCUS/EOR)
  • Yangchang Petroleum Corp. Ltd, Air Products and Chemicals, and West Virginia University agreed to cooperate on a clean fossil energy demonstration in northern Shaanxi (EOR)
  • Shanxi International Energy Group agreed to work with Air products on a feasibility study for pairing a 350 MW Oxygen Combustion plant with a carbon dioxide capture utilization and storage (CCUS) demonstration
  • Shengli Oilfield (SINOPEC) and the University of Kentucky agreed to cooperate on a large—one million tons of CO2 per year—CCUS demonstration (post-combustion capture and algae)

In 2009, President Obama and then President Hu Jintao established the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Centers, with one of the three centers focused on coal and CCUS. In April 2013, the Climate Change Working Group (CCWG) for the Strategic and Economic dialogue was established to deepen and extend large-scale, cooperative efforts. And in July 2013, the two countries committed to new action initiatives across five sustainability issues, including CCUS. The MOUs signed this week bring U.S.-China partnerships to another level by pairing projects in the United States with similar projects in China so that companies and research institutions can share information. Such collaboration can help spur CCUS innovation in both countries and accelerate the demonstration and early deployment phase of CCUS globally.

CCUS: Ready for Prime Time?

Everyone wants to know when power plants equipped with CCUS technology will start providing electricity for people. The unsatisfying answer is that it depends on the success of the first batch of large-scale CCUS projects, as well as how serious governments are about tackling climate change.

Many are looking to the United States and China for answers to these questions, as the two countries are furthest along with their own CCUS development. According the Global CCS Institute, there are 65 CCUS projects in various stages of planning and construction worldwide, with seven already operating. The United States leads global development, with 19 of these large-scale projects, and China comes in second with 12.

Power plants equipped with CCUS in Mississippi and Saskatchewan are scheduled to come on line in 2014, but CCUS efforts aren’t limited to power production. In the United States, there are CCS projects taking place at a variety of industrial facilities including paper mills and ethanol production facilities. A hydrogen production project in Texas, for example, just captured its millionth ton of CO2. And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, projects they've funded have already captured and stored nearly 7.5 million tons of CO2 through federally funded public-private partnerships.

In China, collective investment in already-operating CCUS demonstrations[ totals more than CNY 7.6B—not including GreenGen, which adds another CNY 9.9B. GreenGen’s CCUS aspects are targeted for 2015. These already-operating demonstrations have resulted in capture of about 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year , utilization of more than 120,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, and storage of 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

The Future of CCUS

As temperatures continue to rise, communities around the globe are feeling the effects of climate change in the form of sea level rise, extreme weather, and heat waves. CCUS will only be able to contribute towards a low-carbon world if demonstration and deployment is accelerated—not just in China and the United States, but globally.

Scaling up CCUS to power plants around the world is going to require greater collaboration and information-sharing on how to both effectively and economically deploy the technology. The MOU signing held on Tuesday in China is more than just another photo opportunity. It is evidence that the CCUS discussion is shifting from collaborating on projects that are possible to collaborating on real-world projects that could soon be operating.