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No carbon copy of the west?

With China’s energy consumption increasing by 65 per cent over the past three years alone, its rapid industrialisation has already made it the world’s second largest emitter of the greenhouse gases that accelerate climate change. Mel Jarman looks at how it is approaching the issue

December 1, 2005
4 min read

As well as being the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is now also the world’s second largest oil consumer. If demand carries on growing at its current rate, it will match the current oil consumption of the US in less than 20 years. Pollution control and security of energy supplies have become two of China’s key problems.

These problems have not gone unrecognised: the 11th Five Year Plan, covering 2006 to 2010, includes plans to reduce emissions and develop energy-saving practices on the domestic front. China is also aiming to construct a world-first – an entire eco-city, mostly powered by renewable energy and as close to carbon neutral as possible. Unfortunately, in a not so eco-friendly way, the city will be built in the mouth of the Yangtse river, on land that currently provides a home to thousands of rare birds, plants and other species.

In terms of the supply of energy, China’s grandly titled National Plan for Medium and Long Term Scientific and Technological Development prioritises the development of renewable energy sources. And next year a law will come into force aimed at sourcing one-tenth of energy from renewables by 2020. China’s size means that the significance of this commitment lies as much beyond, as within, national borders. Li Junfeng, secretary general of the Chinese Renewable Energy Industry Association, points out that: ‘China’s anticipated entry into the global renewable energy market is expected to have a profound impact on the global industry.’

More ambitious plans are afoot for another component in China’s energy mix – coal. Even though coal is a polluting fossil fuel, China has huge reserves and relies on it for approximately three quarters of its power generation. So it is unlikely to give it up any time soon. Instead, the Chinese are looking to two technological steps to get out of their pollution pickle: producing less general pollution by burning ‘cleaner’ coal, and releasing fewer greenhouse gas emissions by capturing carbon emissions from coal-burning plants and storing them underground. The EU is working on these plans with China, while the UK is funding a £3.5 million feasibility study for a near zero emissions coal generation project.

While a focus on using – but ‘improving’ – coal is part of securing China’s energy supply, these measures are yet to cut the mustard when it comes to the pollution side of things. The effectiveness of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is still not known. Meanwhile, China’s State Environment Protection Administration has closed polluting factories only to see them re-open weeks later, possibly with local authorities turning a blind eye. China’s local authorities need to have energy generated in their region, not least because they need the taxes from the industries that rely on the energy. Despite good intentions by national policy-makers, the pressure and demand for energy may well mean that standard coal and polluting production methods get used anyway.

The unique opportunity that China does have, and that other countries need to support, is the chance to pursue its inevitable development in a way that actively seeks out the world’s most environmentally conscious options. This includes a stronger focus on energy efficiency and renewable power – not including nuclear power, which, as is the case around the world, is being promoted as an environmental measure. Rixin Kang of the China National Nuclear Corporation has said that: ‘To meet the need of energy supply and environmental protection, nuclear power will play a more active role in China.’

With that traditional indicator of increasing consumer aspirations, car ownership, growing at 60 to 80 per cent a year, it remains to be seen whether the tension between environmental protection and the demand for western consumer lifestyles can be resolved. Stronger campaigns in already industrialised countries, which show that we too are committed to re-thinking resource use, and which highlight how western patterns of consumption are destructive (as opposed to ‘modern’) could support Chinese grassroots movements aiming for a sustainable core to the country’s development.

China knows that it has serious environmental problems – yet is also focused on growth. How this conflict is resolved is still up for grabs: China’s development does not have to be a carbon copy of the west.

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