THEGREENGROK

China’s Mixed Greens: A Sweet and Sour Relationship with Sustainability


by Bill Chameides | June 8th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 2 comments

Between the hazy view from my hotel window in Shanghai and the sustainability expo a few blocks away lie the conflicting views of China’s press toward a green future.

We’ve been getting mixed signals from China about its greenhouse gas emissions commitments.

This morning finds me in Shanghai. While the news back home is filled with stories of tar balls on Florida beaches and oil slicks possibly headed for the East coast via the Loop current, there is a very different gestalt here — a youthful exuberance. It’s about a bright future filled with growth and better times to come. At the same time it’s about adherence to the principles of sustainability and green technologies.

All of this is nicely encapsulated by the Shanghai 2010 Expo, going on a few blocks from my hotel on the banks of the Yangtze River. In the words of the expo itself:

Better City, Better Life represent[s] the common wish of the whole humankind for a better living in future urban environments. This theme represents a central concern of the international community for future policy making, urban strategies and sustainable development.”

But there is a not-so-bright side to China’s exuberant embrace of a sustainable future and it is epitomized by the smog outside my window. It’s 7 a.m. here and already a milky haze hangs over the city.

Such hazes are common not only to Shanghai but virtually every Chinese city. And I know from my own research here the hazes are not confined to the cities either; they are quite common out in the countryside too. The country’s skies seem to be a never-ending gray wherever you go. And, as we all know, smog is not China’s only environmental problems, not by a long shot.

The question for China today, as it has been since the ‘80s: Will the Chinese be able to maintain their breakneck rate of growth without undermining it all by devastating the environment? That smog building outside my window does not make me optimistic.

A Clean Energy Future for China Clouded by Growth in Emissions

Of course, most of China’s environmental problems belong primarily to the Chinese — we’re alarmed by these but not overly concerned with them because they are unlikely to impact our lives directly. One of the big exceptions is emissions of greenhouse gases — that affects us all wherever we live.

China is now the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases, and projections under a business-as-usual scenario suggest their emissions will grow by an annual average of 2.7 percent through 2035. What China does about its greenhouse gases in the coming decades will go a long way to determining what we as a global community will be able to do about climate change.

And in that regard, China has been sending mixed signals.

China’s Carbon Emissions: The Bright Side

On the positive side, China has committed through the Copenhagen Accord to decrease its emissions per unit of gross domestic product (or carbon intensity) 40 to 45 percent by 2020. It’s not an especially ambitious target, something China might reach with little effort, but it’s something.

And that commitment has been backed up with deeds.

  • China is moving aggressively to develop industries in solar and wind (details here and here).
  • It has established surprisingly strict regulations on the fuel economy of automobiles.
  • In 2005 China reversed a four-year trend and began to bring down its energy intensity (closely related to its carbon intensity). Between 2005 and 2009, overall energy intensity was estimated to decrease by a whopping 14 percent, while its carbon intensity dropped by 16 percent between 2005 and 2008 (the latest year with data at Energy Information Administration).

This is all emblematic of the emerging, green-technology-dominated China that folks like Tom Friedman write about — and no doubt that China exists. But there’s another China too.

China’s Carbon Emissions: The Hazy, Smoggy Side

That other China is the China that reversed the trend of the last four years and saw more than a three percent increase in energy intensity in the first quarter of 2010 — a rise due in large part to an increasing reliance on coal-generated electricity.

Emblematic of this China was this little tidbit appearing in Science magazine. Apparently, you can make coal burn cleaner and more efficiently by “washing” it before burning it — a process, the article suggests, that can increase efficiency by 15 percent. Many countries, including the United States, do this as part of their standard operations — a seemingly simple practice that reduces carbon emissions to boot.

Surely a country determined to be the leader in green tech would be on board. But apparently China is not. The reason for such an exception, according to Science, has to do with cuts to the profits of the “coal mines, the railroad monopoly, and the power industry [who] all oppose regulating coal quality.” It’s a problem of “governance.” Now that last bit? It makes me feel right at home.

filed under: carbon dioxide emissions, climate change, coal, energy, faculty, global warming, pollution, renewable energy
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2 Comments

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  1. MattN
    Jun 8, 2010

    I submit that China’s overall environmental track record is SO poor, they have nowhere to go but up. Simply “improving” is a low bar to clear…

  2. MattN
    Jun 8, 2010

    A few comments, if I may: -“China is moving aggressively to develop industries in solar and wind” Yes, but only because their economy is growing so fast, they cannot open power plants fast enough. They need every kilowatt they can beg, borrow, or steal. – “It has established surprisingly strict regulations on the fuel economy of automobiles.” Perhaps they are thinking ahead here. They see how many people they have and see how many cars they are projecting to have, and can do the math. If just half the population gets a car in the next 20 years, that’ll be easily 3/4 billion automobiles. That’s A WHOLE LOT of gas. Perhpas they learned their lesson from their centuries of unchecked population grown? – “…while its carbon intensity dropped by 16 percent between 2005 and 2008 (the latest year with data at Energy Information Administration).” Read this for some perspective about China’s carbon intensity goals: http://blogs.ft.com/energy-source/2010/06/02/chinas-carbon-intensity-targets-debunked/ Take this to the bank: If China thinks it will hurt their economic growth, you can be sure they will NOT do it. – “Of course, most of China’s environmental problems belong primarily to the Chinese — we’re alarmed by these but not overly concerned with them because they are unlikely to impact our lives directly.” I disagree. Soot and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen go all over the place, not just GHGs. And China emits a massive amount of those. Theories abound that soot from China deposited in the Western arctic areas has a significantly greater impact on melting ice through albedo reduction than CO2. If China would clean up their act and just adopt the regulation WE came up with in the 1970s, the world would be a significantly cleaner place.

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