Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
By Christina Larson
This month, on the first anniversary of the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing's skies were a hazy gray. Walking down the street, one was left with a tickle in the throat and burning eyes. A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, conducted jointly by Peking University and Oregon State University, found that Beijing's $20 million investment to scrub the skies for the Olympics in fact had little impact on air quality. The U.S. embassy in Beijing now maintains a Twitter feed posting data from an air-quality monitoring station on the embassy compound; readings of large particulates in the air in recent weeks have ranged from "unhealthy" to "very unhealthy" to "hazardous."
The experience of daily life in Beijing hardly gives the impression that the last year has been a watershed for the environment in China. Being in the capital, one can't help but feel a little quizzical glancing at recent headlines from newspapers in Washington, New York, and London announcing China's green-tech revolution. (This is what an eco-friendly revolution feels like?) It's tempting to shrug and wonder whether the legacy of new green initiatives will be as lackluster as the "green Olympics" - or to feel blue at the lack of promised "blue skies."
Yet for an entirely different perspective on China's recent environmental progress, take the ultra-modern bullet train a half-hour southwest of Beijing to the port city of Tianjin. In just a little over four years, a mix of government and foreign investment has transformed this mid-sized Chinese city into the global manufacturing hub of the world's wind power industry. China's installed wind capacity has doubled in each of the past four years. Many experts seem reasonably optimistic that China could meet its ambitious renewable energy plans to derive at least 15 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The country also is striving to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percent over a five-year period.
These two targets represent some of the most ambitious green goals in the world, and are expected to make China - in just over a decade - the world's largest producer and consumer of alternative energy.
China watchers worldwide have taken note. Earlier this month, a prominent American venture capitalist and the CEO of General Electric published a joint op-ed in The Washington Post, enthusing, "China's commitment to developing clean energy technologies and markets is breathtaking" - even outpacing the U.S. and putting Beijing "in the lead today."
From the outside, China is seen as passing spectacular new renewable energy goals, building massive wind farms and hydropower stations overnight and perhaps one day even giving American and European companies a run for their money in the global green-tech market. But from the inside, what emerges is a more muddled picture. The daily experience is that the air and water quality is bad, in some places getting marginally better or staying the same, in some cases getting worse.
"How do you reconcile these different pictures of China?" asks Barbara Finamore, founder and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China Program. "Both are true at once. It's something we struggle with all the time."
Indeed, China may soon be simultaneously the greenest and the blackest place on earth. The country is poised to be at once the world's leader in alternative energy - and its leading emitter of C02. Alternative energy as a percentage of the total energy mix is increasing, but it will complement -not replace - growth in coal power. In fact, in a decade coal is expected to supply about 70 percent of China's energy. Because of the sheer scale, diversity, and complexity of China, it is possible for the country to take some great green leaps forward, in particular progress toward its alternative energy and energy efficiency targets, while at the same time having its rivers remain black and its air quality a health hazard.
To some extent this varied picture is to be expected. As Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute's China Program, explains: "I think the government is trying very hard, and they're a developing country with huge challenges - different things will move forward at different speeds."
But there may also be another pattern at work. As Beijing-based political commentator Zhao Jing - who writes in the English-language press under the name of Michael Anti - puts it: "There are really two sets of 'green' issues in China, the global and the domestic - those where economic interests align with green targets, and those where they don't." In his estimation, China has made striking progress on the former set of issues, and rather less on the second.
For example, China has made impressive gains in quickly developing its alternative energy industry, in part because large new investments benefit everyone - from wind turbine manufacturers to local governments (which gain tax revenue from new industry) to future consumers. Yet, on domestic air and water pollution - where what is needed is stricter regulatory enforcement, potentially limiting industry - Chinese environmental groups believe the picture may be getting worse. And the environmental lawyers and advocates who would bring these issues to the attention of authorities are facing tougher crackdowns than ever.
At the same time, China is pouring billions of dollars into alternative energy - a commitment that, when taken as a percentage of GDP, is 10 times that of the United States. "China's biggest green achievement has been to develop alternative energy," says Jin Jiamin, founder and executive director of Global Environmental Institute, a Chinese NGO based in Beijing. "In the U.S., it takes time for ideas to become reality. But in China, it's different. It's easy for any new policies to be implemented quickly."
Julian L. Wong, founder of the Beijing Energy Network and now a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, says that the outlook and reported figures so far look good. He points to government statistics indicating that energy consumption per unit of GDP dropped by 10 percent between 2006 and 2008. One reason for rapid progress, he explains, is that these key energy initiatives are backed by China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission, the ministry responsible for economic development.
"Using energy more efficiently makes good economic sense," he says. And diversifying China's energy portfolio also appeals to Beijing, which has been concerned with energy security since the 1980s.
Of course, there are some important caveats. In China, "alternative energy" includes both hydro and nuclear power, which are often not classified as such elsewhere. "Please remember, there are negative environmental consequences for dams and nuclear," says Hu Kanping, editor of the Beijing-based Environmental Protection Journal. "I do not think those are really 'clean' energy sources." This month China announced plans to increase nuclear energy capacity tenfold over the next decade.
While the installation of wind turbines has proceeded at a furious pace in China, not all of the newly installed capacity is actually available to consumers through the grid. "Renewable energy providers often can't always get access to the market," says Ray Cheung, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. "If you're a solar or wind energy company in China and you can't gain access to the grid, nobody's going to buy your power."
Forbes recently reported that as many as 30 percent of "wind power assets" are not adequately connected to the grid. The obstacles are in part technical (the existing grid has not been designed for the fluctuating energy production from wind power), and in part political (the powerful companies that control access to the grid often have cozy relationships with coal energy suppliers and can block green newcomers).
Finally, while progress is almost certainly being made on both alternative energy and energy efficiency in China, it's worth noting that most data for quantifying that progress has been supplied by the government itself. For instance, the state-owned People's Daily publishes the quarterly figures on energy efficiency that are in turn cited by both domestic and international press. "There's still the question of how can we verify figures," says Wong.
Overall, however, on these emerging fronts the trends seem positive. But on domestic environmental issues - those that impact the daily lives of the Chinese people - the picture is less rosy.
"Water quality is probably deteriorating," says Jin Jiamin, of the Global Environmental Institute. "The reason is industrial pollution." Indeed, the Ministry of Environmental Protection's most recent annual report on the state of the environment acknowledges that cleanup efforts failed to make improvements in the water quality of China's seven major rivers. Mortality from cancers linked with pollution - including stomach cancer and liver cancer - continues to rise, according to Ministry of Health statistics. Smog blankets large Chinese cities. The toxic industry of importing dangerous "e-waste" (used electronics and computer parts containing hazardous chemicals) continues to flourish in Guizhou, as documentary photographer Alex Hofford has demonstrated, despite laws in place to shut down the profitable trade.
The reality is that, even as investment to stimulate new green industries is thriving in China, enforcement of green regulations that may limit industrial and economic activity is not. As Charles McElwee, a Shanghai-based environmental lawyer, explains: "Most actions aimed at energy will have some impact on local environment, but China has not shown willingness to commit the same level of resources to enforce existing environmental laws, which would have the most immediate impact on citizens."
And as The Washington Post has reported, tough economic times have brought even laxer environmental enforcement for factories in southern China. Peng Peng, research director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, told the Post: "With the poor economic situation, officials are thinking twice about whether to close polluting factories, whether the benefits to the environment really outweigh the dangers to social stability."
While China's national priorities have shifted, its politics haven't. When economic and environmental priorities align, astoundingly rapid transformation is possible. But when interests compete, the economy still trumps the environment.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Mon Aug 17, 2009 10:08am EDT BEIJING (Reuters) - China should set firm targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions so they peak around 2030, a study by some of the nation's top climate change policy advisers has proposed ahead of contentious talks on a new global warming pact. The call for "quantified targets" to cap greenhouse gas pollution marks a high-level public departure from China's reluctance to spell out a proposed peak and date for it. "By 2008 China had become the world's biggest national emitter of greenhouse gases and faces unprecedented challenges," says the preface of the 900-page report, setting aside China's reluctance to say it has passed the United States as the top emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from burning coal, gas and oil. "As soon as possible, study and draft relative and (then) absolute targets to cap the total volume of carbon dioxide emissions," says the preface of the report, obtained by Reuters. "Establishing and acting on quantified targets and corresponding policies to address climate change in the medium to long-term is already a matter of great urgency." The "2050 China Energy and C02 Emissions Report" proposes that, with the right policies, emissions growth could slow by 2020, with levels peaking around 2030. If China can reach these goals, by 2050 its carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel "could fall to the same emissions levels as in 2005 or even lower," the report says. The report in Chinese is on open sale and builds on earlier research exploring pathways to a "low-carbon" economy. It adds to recent signals that Beijing wants to play an active role in seeking agreement for a new international climate change pact. With its fast-rising greenhouse gas emissions, China's stance will be crucial in efforts to create a successor to the current Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012. Western nations have pressed Beijing to set specific goals on slowing emissions growth in coming years, leading to early cuts in absolute volumes as part of a new pact governments hope to seal in Copenhagen by the end of 2009. Under current treaties, China and other developing countries need not shoulder the quantified limits on emissions that rich economies must take on. Beijing has said that principle must not change and resisted specifying when its emissions may peak, pointing out its average emissions per person remain much lower than the average in rich nations. But the airing of proposals for emissions caps comes after signs that Beijing has become more open to stronger steps against global warming as negotiators struggle to build agreement before Copenhagen. "This report is intended to advise the government what its options are," said Deborah Seligsohn, China Program Director with the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based organization promoting policies to fight global warming. "I think they're making a pretty concentrated push to move the negotiations forward," said Seligsohn. Early this month, China's ambassador to the climate talks, Yu Qingtai, said his government wanted to curb greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. Next week, the Standing Committee of China's parliament -- a Communist Party-controlled body that echoes government priorities -- will consider a separate report on climate change policy and a resolution on the issue, the Xinhua news agency said. NOT A CONCRETE POLICY BLUEPRINT The dozens of contributors to the "2050 China Energy" report included climate policy experts from Chinese state think-tanks, including the Energy Research Institute and the State Council Development Research Center, which advises the cabinet. Participating scholars stressed that the study was a research exercise, not a definitive policy blueprint, and there was no suggestion that the senior officials listed as its advisers endorsed its specific proposals for targets and a 2030 peak. But the proposals have been circulated among officials and were echoed in a cabinet meeting last week that urged making "controlling greenhouse gas emissions" an important part of development plans, said an expert familiar with the project, speaking on condition of anonymity. The report spells out possibly disastrous consequences of global warming, as growing amounts of human-caused greenhouse gases retain more of the sun's energy in the atmosphere. "The potential threat to China from climate change exists and it is massive," states the report, warning of worsening droughts and floods, retreating glaciers, shrinking farm productivity and threats to water supplies for the country of 1.3 billion people. To curb emissions, China could push financial steps and price reforms to favor clean energy, a "carbon tax" on fossil fuels and cautious steps toward a "cap-and-trade" system for buying and selling emissions rights, says the report. Beijing may seek to use such domestic initiatives to show other nations it is serious about fighting global warming, even if the steps are not directly included in any international pact. "The problem now is not China making its own domestic commitments and targets, it's how we treat those commitments internationally," Dai Yande, a deputy director of the Energy Research Institute and one the report's organizers, told Reuters. For a graphic on China's emissions scenarios go to here
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Facing dire pollution and wanting to be in on what may be the next industrial revolution, China positions itself to be a leader in green technology – with major implications for the rest of the world.
By Peter Ford | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor/ August 10, 2009 edition
Behind the notorious clouds of filth and greenhouse gases that China’s industrial behemoth spews into the atmosphere every day, a little-noticed revolution is under way. China is going green. And as the authorities here spur manufacturers of all kinds of alternative energy equipment to make more for less, “China price” and “China speed” are poised to snatch the lion’s share of the next multitrillion-dollar global industry – energy technology.
Chinese factories already make a third of the world’s solar cells – six times more than America. Next year, China will become the largest market in the world for wind turbines – overtaking America. This fall, a Chinese firm will launch the world’s first mass-produced all-electric car of this century. And where are American utilities buying the latest generation of “clean coal” power stations? China.
“The Chinese government thinks of renewables as a major strategic industrial option” that will help fuel this country’s future growth, says Li Junfeng, deputy head of energy research at China’s top planning agency. “We will catch up with international advanced technology very quickly.”
China will likely remain the world’s worst polluter, emitting more CO2 than any other nation, for the foreseeable future. Its reliance on cheap coal to generate the bulk of its electricity makes that almost inevitable.
At the same time, however, “this country is installing a one-megawatt wind turbine every hour,” points out Dermot O’Gorman, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Beijing. “That is more encouraging than the one coal fired power station a week” that normally dominates foreign headlines.
Indeed, China is pushing ahead on renewable technologies with the fervor of a new space race. It wants to be in the forefront of what many believe will be the next industrial revolution. If it succeeds, it will hold far-reaching implications for the planet – affecting everything from Detroit’s competitiveness to global warming to the economic pecking order in the 21st century.
“The rest of the world doesn’t even realize that we are very likely ceding the next generation of energy technology to the Chinese,” says Todd Glass, an energy lawyer with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati in San Francisco.
A 20-MINUTE DRIVE from the Great Wall, along the south shore of the Guanting reservoir, straw-hatted peasants tend their corn crop as the elegant blades of windmills spin idly above them in the gentle breeze, farming the wind.
Guanting’s 43 wind turbines provided some of the power for last year’s “Green Olympics” of which China was so proud, and they continue to generate not only electricity, but admiration: The wind farm is a favorite spot for newlyweds to take their wedding photos.
“They find the windmills beautiful and magnificent,” says Yin Zhiyong, the Guanting wind farm manager, as he shows a visitor around. “So do I.”
Mr. Yin trained as a coal engineer; when he was at college 20 years ago, wind-power courses were not offered. Today, he is convinced, “new energy sources are the new way of development. I’m part of the future.”
The Chinese government shares that view. The country’s installed wind power capacity has doubled each of the past four years, and is likely to exceed the 2020 target next year, a decade ahead of schedule. A revised goal, expected to be more than three times higher than the current one, will be announced soon, officials say.
Beijing has deliberately stimulated the wind sector with an array of subsidies and tariffs and a rule obliging power companies to buy renewable energy similar to a law now before the US Congress. So fast have windmills been built that the national grid cannot handle all the energy they generate, and much is wasted.
But the industry built by government policy is now looking much further afield. “Goldwind’s goal is to become a multinational and international company,” Wu Gang, the CEO of Goldwind, the firm that built Guanting’s turbines, told the “Securities Times” last month. “That is our business target.”
Already, he pointed out, Goldwind is building wind farms in Texas, and Goldwind acquired its key technology by buying 70 percent of the German company Vensys, not by developing it itself. That deal points up a key ingredient in Chinese firms’ strategies: If they don’t have time to develop technological proficiency, they will use their financial clout to get ahead.
China’s top planning agency is soon expected to announce plans to raise the proportion of renewables in the country’s energy mix to 20 per-cent by 2020, matching the European Union’s ambitious target.
Goals like this act as clear pointers for the state-owned power generating companies, where “the idea of planned industrial policy is in their blood,” as Ellen Carberry of the China Greentech Initiative puts it.
That approach is apparent in the electric-car sector, says Ms. Carberry, who represents 60 global and Chinese companies seeking to grow the green technology market here.
Two Chinese firms, BYD Auto (for Build Your Dreams) and Qingyuan are vying to bring an all-electric car to market this fall. In December, BYD started selling the world’s first mass-produced plug-in hybrid vehicle.
With the passenger vehicle sector moving forward, the government ordered 1,000 hybrid buses for Beijing and Shanghai earlier this year. It announced customer rebates of up to 40 percent off the price of new cars, depending on their energy efficiency.
Almost overnight, Beijing has focused world attention on the Chinese hybrid vehicle market. “They saw that Detroit was in a muddle, so they will leapfrog,” says Carberry.
The government has taken a different path with solar energy, refusing until recently to offer any encouragement of its use at home because solar’s price was still much higher than traditional fuels and incentives would have been very expensive. But that hasn’t stopped Chinese and foreign venture capital firms from investing in the manufacture of solar panels for export. Here, as in other fields, “China is a fast follower,” says Alex Westlake, a founder of Clearworld Now, which invests in Chinese green-tech firms.
Though solar technology is not as advanced in China as in the US, producers here have used the country’s traditional cost advantage to vault to the top of the solar sales league.
And when the government does make up its mind which technology to back, its support “will make the Chinese photovoltaic market the biggest in the world,” predicts Miao Liansheng, CEO of Yingli, one of the country’s top solar-cellmakers.
The sheer size of China’s market, and the economies of scale that size allows, are key components of the country’s advantage. “They are using their manufacturing strength and imposing cost discipline on the world,” says Mr. Glass.
NOWHERE ARE CHINA’S green ambitions more evident than in its drive towards new “clean coal” technology, which would help Beijing reduce its emissions of pollutants and CO2 while remaining reliant on its giant coal reserves. China burns coal to generate 80 percent of its electricity; the United States uses it for half its power. No matter how many sources of renewable energy those two countries tap, coal will remain their dominant fuel source for several decades.
Many energy experts are pinning their hopes on new ways of using an old technology, coal gasification. It cuts SO2 and NOx emissions and separates out CO2 so that it can be captured and then either used in industry, digested by biodiesel-producing algae, or stored permanently underground.
The US was meant to lead the way toward a near zero emissions coal-fired power plant by building one first while other countries, including China, waited for experimental data before constructing their own.
But the US Futuregen project ran into so many cost and political troubles that it was shelved. As a result, the Chinese government decided last year to move ahead with its own project. The Greengen plant, designed to be the most efficient and cleanest coal-fired power station ever built, should begin operations by the end of next year, officials here say.
In the meantime, two Chinese research centers, the East China University of Science and Technology and the Thermal Power Research Institute, have developed coal gasification techniques to challenge America’s lead in the field. Both recently licensed their inventions to American firms building power plants in the United States.
“The general thinking in the US is that we are 30 years ahead of China in technology,” says Ming Sung, a Chinese-born American who worked most of his career with Shell. “We think it’s a one-way transfer. China licensing technology to the United States is still very unusual. But it will become less and less unusual.”
He points to underground coal gasification, where solid fuel is converted to gas without even being extracted, as an example. China graduated 17 PhDs in that field last year. Only two graduated in the rest of the world.
Not that the US is a technological laggard, of course. US firms were developing advanced coal gasification technologies 30 years ago, but the Department of Energy lost interest in them when the oil embargo ended, complains Mr. Ming. “The US is very innovative, but everything comes to fruition in China,” he says.
Or, as Zhang Hongmei puts it: “In America, some people say there is no such thing as clean coal. It is very controversial. Here it’s not a question of debate or lobbying. It’s a question of doing something.”
Ms. Zhang is director for technology strategy and development at ENN, China’s largest privately owned clean-energy provider. At its spacious and exquisitely manicured campus in Langfang, 40 miles east of Beijing, executives live in villas by the fairways of the company golf course.
That is the kind of perk that has helped the company recruit many engineers abroad – both foreigners and Chinese whom ENN has tempted home. “In China as a whole, research levels are still generally low. We are at a very, very young stage compared to the US or Europe,” says Gan Zhongxue, ENN’s chief technology officer. “So we recouped many researchers from the US and Europe who are familiar with advanced technology and can then do something for ENN.”
“China cannot yet produce things with the credibility and quality behind the ‘Made in Germany’ label,” adds Jennifer Morgan, an analyst with E3G, a London-based environmental think tank. “They are not there yet.”
Still, the country has plenty of reasons to attempt to be the world’s next green-energy power. For one thing, it has few natural energy resources of its own. Plus, its pollution problems are so severe that it has little choice. The country’s outsized reliance on coal is literally a matter of life and death: 750,000 people in China die prematurely each year because of air pollution, a World Bank study in 2007 found (though the Chinese government insisted the bank cut that statistic from its final report). Only 1 percent of the population breathes air that would be considered safe in Europe.
Moreover, Beijing – just like US President Barack Obama – sees renewable energy as an economic boon. Building out a new global energy industry over the next half century will generate more business than any other sector, Chinese officials predict, and they want a hefty chunk of that business. “This gives us an opportunity to develop a new area for a new industry” says Professor Li. “It’s good for our long-term development.”
BUT THE QUESTION LOOMS: What does China’s rise as a green power mean for the rest of the world? Certainly it has its benefits. A China with more solar cells and electric cars will help reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases building up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
It could also reduce the competition for, and depletion of, dwindling natural resources – notably oil. If China rises as a green-technology manufacturing hub, it could supply the world with low-cost solar panels and wind turbines as it does now with toys and textiles.
Yet there are worries for the West, too. If green energy is the new industrial revolution, Beijing will be grabbing many of the jobs of tomorrow. That will likely hasten the day when China becomes the world’s No. 1 economic power.
“China sees [green technology] as an enormous market that is not claimed or controlled by any one nation, and there is an opportunity for them to do it,” says Carberry. “The combination of urgency; the enormous needs; a focused, systematic planned government; an army of engineers; and access to capital may define China as the platform for the green- technology industry globally.”
Mr. Westlake of Clearworld Now, echoing the 1980’s song by the American rock band Timbuk3, puts it more pithily: “The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.”
Thursday, August 06, 2009
BEIJING — China’s envoy to global negotiations on climate change expressed optimism on Wednesday that a new agreement to reduce greenhouse gases would be reached this year, and he said that his nation’s efforts to curb carbon pollution already had produced results that he called “second to none.”
But the envoy, Yu Qingtai, also underscored China’s opposition to placing a ceiling on its emissions of greenhouse gases, a step that some experts have called crucial to efforts to slow global warming.
China now emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, although it remains well behind when pollutants are measured on a per-person basis. Together, China and the United States account for about 40 percent of pollutants linked to climate change.
In a briefing at China’s Foreign Ministry, Mr. Yu presented a list of Chinese achievements in limiting carbon emissions, including claims that Beijing is the world’s foremost user of nonpolluting hydropower and solar power, and fourth in wind power. By 2020, he said, 15 percent of China’s energy will come from renewable sources.
Mr. Yu also said the nation had made impressive strides in energy efficiency, reducing the amount of energy used per unit of gross domestic product by a tenth since 2005. The government has said it will achieve a total reduction of 20 percent by 2020, a goal Mr. Yu called “a binding target.”
Mr. Yu said he was hopeful that a comprehensive agreement to reduce greenhouse gases could be reached at a December meeting in Copenhagen, where nations will try to devise a successor to the protocol reached at a 1997 United Nations meeting in Kyoto, Japan. Part of that optimism, he said, stemmed from the fact that global climate problems are so fearsome that “we cannot afford to fail.”
“Not a single country in the world will be able to stay out of trouble,” he said. “Not a single country can say that it can keep safe and intact from global warming. So the only way out is cooperation — global cooperation.”
Still, he repeated China’s longstanding opposition to placing an absolute limit on its own emissions of greenhouse gases. Limiting China’s development would hamstring efforts to raise its living standards closer to the level of the developed world, which Mr. Yu noted is largely responsible for climate change problems.
Mr. Yu devoted much of his briefing to calls for the world’s rich nations to take concrete steps toward reducing their pollutants instead of issuing what he suggested were empty pledges. China has proposed that the developed world commit to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020.
“The developed countries, in realizing their industrialization, have discharged a large amount of greenhouse gases in the course of one or two centuries,” he said. “The cumulative emissions by the developed countries have caused global warming. Who should take the historical responsibilities?”Mr. Yu also said that talks with the Obama administration on climate change issues had been “quite fruitful” and that China saw great potential for further progress in bilateral negotiations.