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Is China Heading for Sustainable Development?
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by Cathy Kunkel | 2007

The most effective step that China could take to reduce emissions and energy demand would likely be to improve energy efficiency

"The biggest change is that we are always changing,” said a college-age Chinese friend in response to my question about developments he has witnessed. And, after living in Beijing for a year, I agree. Change is the common theme. The pace of development in China is staggering. One thousand new cars are added every day in Beijing. The World Bank estimates that about half of the world’s new building construction until 2015 will take place in China. The government is planning for energy consumption to quadruple between 2000 and 2020. The list goes on.

Coal, Today and Tomorrow

I moved to Beijing last fall to work as a research assistant studying biomass energy policy. Before going to China, I was very interested to see how my Chinese colleagues would view the future of their nation’s energy supply, currently dominated by coal. Because of China’s huge coal reserves, coal makes up 61 percent of the country’s primary energy supply (compared with 23 percent in the United States). Part of the reason for the dominance of coal is that environmental and safety regulations are often not enforced, making coal mines and power plants cheaper to operate.

The consensus among Chinese energy experts with whom I interacted is that coal will be dominant in the energy supply for the foreseeable future. There is a lot of interest in “clean coal” technologies and carbon sequestration, although limited work has been done to assess sites for underground carbon storage.

 China’s biggest energy supply problem is probably liquid fuels. The country lacks sufficient reserves of oil and natural gas and is reluctant to become too dependent on imports. Already China is second only to the United States in oil imports. As a result, it is now promoting biofuels and coal-to-liquids technology. Targets for biofuels are ambitious: 2 million tons of ethanol by 2010, and 10 million tons by 2020.

     The major problem with biofuels in China is shortage of sufficient land for both growing energy crops and feeding the huge population. China has already stated that it will not be expanding corn ethanol production. As a result, plans for coal-to-liquids development dwarf those for biofuels. The Shenhua Group, one of China’s largest coal producers, plans to produce more than 30 million tons of oil annually by 2020 via coal liquefaction. Unfortunately, coal liquefaction without underground carbon storage results in about double the carbon emissions than just burning petroleum fuels.

Ambitious Targets for Renewable Energy

In terms of renewabley energy, the government has fairly ambitious targets, including 30 GW wind, 1 GW solar, and 30 GW biomass by 2020, up from 2 GW wind and 0.025 GW biomass in 2006. To put these numbers in perspective, in 2005 China’s total electric power generation capacity was 510 GW.

In the long term, wind and solar will probably have a larger role to play in China’s electricity supply than biomass. The agricultural situation is very different from that of the United States or Europe; the dominance of small farms makes it difficult and expensive to collect a large amount of biomass for centralized applications. However,  China already dominates the world market for solar water heating. In nearly every city one sees row after row of apartment buildings with solar water heaters on their roofs. Solar photovoltaics have yet to take off, although the city of Rizhao has successfully promoted solar power with a set of policies, including a mandate that all new buildings install solar panels. Furthermore, studies indicate that wind could, theoretically, supply almost all of China’s electricity needs.

The most effective step that China could take to reduce emissions and energy demand would likely be to improve energy efficiency. Industrial energy efficiency in China is quite low. Per dollar of economic output, China uses 3 times more energy than the world average and 11 times more energy than Japan. The government has ambitious targets for improving energy efficiency by 2010, but so far it appears unlikely that these targets will be met.

Hopeful Trends?

So are there any hopeful trends in terms of environmental improvements? I think so. Information is more publicly available than it used to be, and the general trend is toward more public participation in environmental affairs. There are over 3,000 registered environmental NGOs in China today, a rapid increase from less than 50 only five years ago. These NGOs are gradually becoming more sophisticated and effective.

One of the most innovative NGOs is the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, founded in 2006 by Ma Jun, author of the influential book China’s Water Crisis (Beijing: China Environmental Sciences Publishing House, 1999). His institute has created an online map of water pollution in China, and is using this information to pressure multinational companies to green their supply chains and stop purchasing from polluting factories. In addition, China has seen a rise in the number of direct, grassroots environmental protests. In 2005 the state-owned press estimated the number of environmental protests at 50,000, up almost 30 percent  from the previous year.

One of the most talked-about environmental protests this year was in the city of Xiamen, Fujian Province. The people protested in the streets for several days against a planned chemical plant that would have produced carcinogenic paraxylene only 1.5 km from a residential area. As a direct result of the protest, the project was suspended.

Moreover, the next generation of leaders will doubtless have a very different perspective than the current generation, many of whom are older than modern China. I spent a fair amount of time this year interacting with student environmental leaders and also attended the 4th Annual College Environmental Forum, which brought together student leaders from across China. Although  they face many more challenges than their counterparts in the United States in terms of finding funding and getting university support for their activities, they are equally passionate and very interested in learning from Americans and adapting our tactics and ideas. They often talk about the need to find a new model of development that doesn’t follow the West. Of course these are not your typical students; as in the United States, students involved in environmental activism constitute a very small percentage of the total.

In short, China’s energy and environmental problems are indeed severe and overwhelming. But along with its rapid economic growth, the country is also changing politically and culturally. I won’t presume to predict whether the changes that China is experiencing will be enough to effect the transformation to sustainable development which is so desperately needed. But certainly the decisions made in the next ten to fifteen years will be crucial for China’s own and the world’s environment.  

Cathy Kunkel graduated from Princeton University in 2006, and is the daughter of  Chesapeake editorial team member Sue Kunkel.

> 2007 Table of Contents


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