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China on red alert for emissions !
26 May 2008 Hervé Bonnaveira

In 2006, China overtook the US to become the world’s number one CO2 emitter. Crossing the country by bike, we plunge into China’s coal-powered present and witness the beginnings of a greener future.
Translated by Rashaad JORDEN

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The red and the black: is China ready to go off coal?

You can see everything from wheat fields, but there’s always a coal mine, a thermal power plant or a cement factory as the focal point. Such is the landscape of the industrial countryside in China that we’ve been crossing. Everywhere, they dig, transport, or burn coal. Heaps of coal in the process of being loudly pounded are loaded then unloaded by eight-wheeled monsters in front of houses. On the edge of the roads, blackened faces gather coal dust fallen from trucks and spead out by the wind in bamboo wheelbarrows. In cottages, they get light, heat up and cook via coal. Their bicycles, clothes, and skin are covered in it, and they breath from coal. However, we are in the 21st century in what is now the world’s third biggest economic power (judging by GDP). And during this time, our planet has been choking from CO2 and heating up rapidly.

Along with the rise of consumption in China, CO2 emissions are in the process of doubling every ten years. The biggest polluting sectors are industry and construction, which are responsible for 57% of the CO2 emissions as road haulage only emit five percent of them (International Energy Agency, 2004). Chinese leaders, aware of the necessity to reduce CO2 emissions, ratified the Kyoto protocol in 2002 and then announced several plans to produce 10% of their energy via renewable sources by 2010. But the failure of the Bali conference in December 2007 risks relaunching resistance to change. In order to assure its rapid economic development, China needs less expensive energy - however, the problem is that coal is so abundant. The production of coal surpassed 2.5 billion tons in 2007. Much of it will still be burning before renewable energy can take over.

Precisely, what are these clean or less polluting energies? Our journey in China has allowed us to see some of them emerge. Hydroelectric energy doesn’t emit CO2, but we can’t truly consider it to be a satisfactory alternative. Numerous rivers would be clogged by dams. Water is too vital to agriculture and local populations to be only utilized as a source of energy. The recent devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in southern China equally revitalized fears of a dam severance. In the case of the Three Gorges Dam, it’s a 100-meter high wave that would come to swallow both Yichang and Wuchang (a city of four million inhabitants) before finishing its run at Shanghai (15 million inhabitants).

On the wind-driven and solar side, we’ve been able to notice good initiatives on the big as well as the little scale. The majority of the streetlights in the countryside or in small towns are fed by solar panels. In a lot of big box stores, on household electrical appliances shelves and even in little shops, people can equip themselves with solar water heaters (vacuum-packaged tubes) at an affordable price (starting from 1400 RMB = 140 euros). Even in winter when the outside temperature drops to -20 C, water wan be heated up to 30 C. An efficient solution is to avoid boiling coal. Our tour of renewable energy in China has culminated with the visit of a wind-driven farm. 100 km north of Beijing, about 30 giant mills majestically spread out their wings in a wind aisle. How happy were we to cycle from one mill to another in the middle of corn plantations - a simple witness of the forces of nature - without the noise of a motor and smoke. Numerous other facilities are present in a Mongolian interior swept away by powerful desert winds.

Keep in mind that China’s CO2 emissions remain two times less per inhabitant than those of the average French person and seven times less than those of the average American! Take care of your own mess first!
Translated by Rashaad JORDEN
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