China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Monday, November 06, 2006

Olympics under a cloud

Heather Connon
Sunday November 5, 2006
The Observer

In Beijing, you are not allowed to set the air conditioning below 28C, the street lighting in the suburbs around the city has solar panels attached and the athletes in the Olympic village being built for the 2008 Games will all power-shower using renewable energy. Laudable though that may sound, Beijing's environmental action plan is often literally overshadowed by the cloud of pollution which usually hangs over the city, causing coughs and allergies among its citizens.

Beijing's pollution problems are only a small part of the larger environmental headache facing the Chinese government, a headache which meant that the most common response to last week's Stern report on climate change was: 'What about the Chinese?'

It is a crucial question. While China's greenhouse-gas emissions may currently be eclipsed by arch-polluter America, unless some drastic measures are taken soon, it will be by far the biggest culprit within the next decade.

China is good at setting targets for cleaning itself up - the latest include improving energy efficiency by 20 per cent and reducing pollution by 10 per cent by 2010, and increasing the renewables share of the energy market to 15 per cent by 2020.

Problem is, it is not so good at achieving those targets. Bert Hofman, chief economist for the World Bank in Beijing, points out that, over the five years to 2005, it has missed every target it set; indeed, in most cases, the position had actually worsened since 2000 rather than improved.

China is trying hard. A spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic games boasts proudly that the city's so-called 'blue sky' days, where the air quality meets international standards, have risen from 100 in 1998 to 234, or nearly two-thirds of the year. To achieve that, it has combined measures such as planting 18 million trees and ruling that cars be scrapped when they are eight years old, with conversion of much of the city's smokebelching coal-fired industrial boilers to natural gas. Consumption of gas has risen almost seven-fold in the past six years or so. It will also adopt short-term measures during 2008, such as asking its citizens not to use their cars during the Olympics.

Most important for the long term is the relocation of industrial plants such as those of Capital Iron and Steel Corporation, whose 50-year-old furnaces produce most of the smog that blankets the west of the city for many days - and the rest of it when the wind is in the 'right' direction.

But these measures are of questionable effectiveness in a country which is building a power plant every week; which has built more than 100 airports and countless miles of roads over the last three decades; whose population is already about equal to the combined populations of the developed world and growing rapidly; and whose factories supply 80 per cent of the world's photocopiers. And this is a country whose citizens are increasingly demanding consumer durables for themselves, exacerbating the emissions problem.

The economic cost is already huge. According to some provisional estimates, almost 700,000 Chinese people die each year because of air pollution, and a further 300,000 develop chronic bronchitis. Add in factors such as diarrhoea from polluted water and crop loss from depleted water resources, and the effect could be to cut between 3-8 per cent from its GDP every year - bearable, perhaps, when the economy is steaming ahead but, over the long term, likely to step up the pressure for more definite action.

The question is: what can China do? Virtually its only natural energy resource is coal, and dirty coal at that. It is piping in natural gas, but nowhere near enough to supply all its energy needs, and progress on clean-coal technology for its power plants is slow.

One senior Beijing official with detailed knowledge of China's environmental strategy said that the problem stems partly from the fact that, although China is a heavily centralised, controlled economy, central plans need to be implemented by the 31 'fiefdoms' or local areas.

'Its targets are tough and are hard to get implemented across such a large country,' the official said. 'It is the inverse to the situation in the US - here the issue is recognised at the centre but local implementation is tough.'

Technorati Tags: , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home