The Nautilus Institute

Energy, Security and Environment in Northeast Asia Network
Policy Forum Online

March, 1997

The ESENA Policy Forum Online is intended to provide expert analysis of contemporary energy, security and environmental issues in Northeast Asia, and an opportunity to participate in discussion of the analysis. A set of questions based on the work below is appended below. The Nautilus Institute invites your responses, based either on these questions or on any other thoughts you have after reading the work. We will post selected responses on our Web site. Please send your responses to us at:

"Technological Alternatives to Reduce Emissions from Energy Production in Northeast Asia"

By Dr. David Von Hippel

Copyright (c) 1997 Nautilus of America/The Nautilus Institute

This report was developed with support from:
The W. Alton Jones Foundation
The U.S.-Japan Foundation
The Center for Global Partnership


Acid rain, caused primarily by emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides (NOx and SOx), is already having an environmental and economic impact in the countries of Northeast Asia. The problem is regional in scope, as emissions cross national boundaries and can have impacts in other nations. Projected growth in energy consumption in the region, particularly in the now-developing economies, creates the potential for vastly increased emissions in coming decades. This paper reviews a selection of options for reducing NOx and SOx emissions in five categories: post-combustion pollution control, burner modification, fuel pre-treatment, fuel-switching, and energy efficiency improvement. The relative cost per unit of emissions reduction of measures from each category are compared. A number of different options for regional cooperation to address SOx and NOx emissions reduction are suggested, as are particular opportunities for collaboration between the United States and Japan to assist countries of the region in reducing emissions.

Executive Summary

Of the many environmental concerns currently facing the nations of Northeast Asia, the problem of "acid rain" or "acid precipitation" presents perhaps the most potent combination of immediate and ongoing impact and regional scope. Acid rain in Asia has already been implicated in the declining health of some of the region's forests, in the premature weathering of metals and other man-made materials, and in the degradation of irreplaceable cultural monuments. Acid precipitation is primarily the result of the reaction of oxides of sulfur and nitrogen (SOx and NOx) the "acid gases"-with water or water vapor, yielding sulfuric and nitric acids. Acid gases can act as local air pollutants, or, depending on weather conditions and how they are emitted, can be transported for hundreds of kilometer or more. Acid gases are produced primarily when fuels are combusted, although smelting of the ores of some metals is also a significant source of sulfur oxides.

The recent and projected growth in economic output and fuels use in Northeast Asia creates both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that unless changes are made in the way that fuels are used, acid rain and other environmental problems threaten to seriously erode (literally and figuratively) the gains of development. The projected increase in fuels use does, however, provide an opportunity for the countries of the region, in cooperation, to promote a development path for the developing nations of Northeast Asia that takes advantage of a suite of available measures -- measures that not only reduce acid gas emissions, but can concurrently provide other environmental and economic benefits.

The types of measures available to reduce the quantities of acid gases emitted from the energy sector include:
Of these categories of measures, fuel-switching and energy-efficiency measures hold the most promise for reducing acid gases at costs that are either relatively low or negative (meaning that the measures pay for themselves with fuel, capital, and operating savings alone) on a net basis. End-of-pipe and burner modification measures are will continue to be important to retrofit the existing equipment in the region and to the extent that growth in coal-fired power will continue to occur. Burner modifications (such as "low-NOx" burners) in new combustion equipment typically add little to the cost of producing the equipment, and should be uniformly applied (as is increasingly the practice in industrialized countries). Coal cleaning will continue to be important to reduce the sulfur and ash content of lower-quality coals, to improve the combustion properties of coal, and to reduce coal transport costs. The reduction of sulfur contents of refined products is not a present widely applicable in China, which now uses mainly low-sulfur crude oil in its refineries, but probably will be in the future as China is forced to purchase more and more higher-sulfur crude oil from the Middle East.

How can regional cooperation help to implement some of these measures? Possibilities include: Some potential starting points for United States-Japan and regional collaboration in reducing acid gas emissions in Northeast Asia might include:
Read the complete version of
"Technological Alternatives to Reduce Acid Gas and Related Emissions from Energy-Sector Activities in Northeast Asia"

The Nautilus Institute Invites Your Responses

Your are invited to participate in this "Online Policy Forum" by considering the questions below, or collecting any other thoughts you have after reading the paper, and then emailing your comments to: . The Nautilus Institute will review responses and post selections to this web site.

1. The Nautilus Institute commissioned this paper with the believe that the growing problem of transboundary, energy-related air pollution-primarily acid rain generated by the emissions from coal-fired plants has already emerged as a major ecological and health problem and as an irritant in regional relations. Should the reduction of sulfur and nitrous oxides be a priority in Northeast Asia?

2. Of the current and appropriate technological alternatives for reducing emissions from energy production, Dr. Von Hippel suggests that fuel-switching and energy-efficiency measures are the most effective means of reducing acid gases. However, in Northeast Asia, many experts continue to promote nuclear power as the most effective way of meeting energy needs and reducing emissions? Which energy strategy is most appropriate for China? North Korea? South Korea? Japan?

3. Von Hippel suggests a number of joint US-Japanese policy initiatives which might be feasible and useful at either a concerted, unilateral-basis, or on a joint basis, either directly with China, or with the region as a whole. There are many others. What format might such initiatives take?

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