China has made global headlines in recent months for overtaking the United States as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, while state media ran almost daily stories of chemical water pollution and contaminated food.
But Western governments and environmental groups have welcomed the ruling Communist Party’s plans to remould its unrelenting economic rush into a form of “sustainable” development that curbs carbon emissions and pushes China to the forefront of “green” technology.
Chinese leaders and businesses hope to make their country one of the first to embrace the environmental technology that could transform global energy consumption over the next few decades, making China a leading producer of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles.
While China has been reluctant to sign up to an international treaty on curbing climate change, its movement on clean energy has bolstered the emerging Asian power’s credibility as it heads into the United Nations climate change summit starting Monday in Cancun, Mexico.
“Developing renewable energy vigorously is necessary for taking up the front line in the new round of global energy revolution,” Chinese President Hu Jintao said during a visit last year at a wind farm in the eastern province of Shandong.
Hu urged Chinese renewable energy firms to accelerate development and reduce costs to “help improve the country’s energy structure.”
Greenpeace head approves
One year later, Hu seems to have won the support of Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo.
In October, Naidoo described his “inspirational” visit to the Guanting wind farm near Beijing, which is designed to generate electricity for 200 000 homes and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 200 000 tonnes annually.
“Imagine wind farms such as the one I visited dotted across China, replacing dirty, dangerous coal-fired power stations and mines,” Naidoo wrote in his Greenpeace blog. “This is not an empty dream.”
The Climate Group, a London-based lobbying organization, plans to host a group of Chinese government and business leaders to share their experiences with a global audience at a “China Day” during the Cancun summit.
“China’s participation will spark vital dialogue … into the game-changing, low-carbon technologies and policies we all need to make deep cuts in global emissions,” Steve Howard, the Climate Group’s chief executive, said last week.
China invests more in renewable energy than any other country and builds an average of two new wind turbines every hour, according to Greenpeace. The domestic market for wind power has more than doubled annually for the last four years.
New solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants
In 2005, China announced plans to install 30 gigawatts (GW) of wind power by 2020, but Greenpeace forecast that the country could have several times that capacity if installation of turbines continues at the current pace.
China wants dozens of new solar, wind, hydro and nuclear plants to meet a target of reducing its carbon intensity per unit of gross domestic product by 40% to 45% by 2020. The target was first offered the December 2009 United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen.
China is supporting clean energy through national and regional projects, and by encouraging state banks to back the projects and withhold loans from heavily polluting firms.
Yet more than 90% of China’s electricity still comes from coal-fired power plants, and this reliance is only expected to fall to 85% by 2020.
Government planners are still weighing the merits of different pillars of “green” development, including electric vehicles and carbon-capture technology at coal-burning factories and power plants.
“For example, electric vehicles are expensive, and if you use power from coal-fired power plants, then they are very expensive with little economic benefit,” said Hu Xiulian, an energy researcher at the government’s National Development and Reform Commission.
“But if you use solar power, it is different,” Hu Xiulian told the the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA).
She forecast that China’s carbon-capture technology, which aims to prevent carbon-dioxide produced by coal plants from entering the atmosphere, would not be developed enough to make major cuts in emissions until 2025 or even 2030.
Naidoo admitted that the Chinese government still faced “major hurdles” but was progressing in its committment to reduce reliance on coal. China has “all the potential to become the world’s clean energy superpower, the world reference for low-carbon development,” he said.
“What inspires me most in all of this,” Naidoo said, “is that by choosing to go down the road of renewable energy, China could pride itself on having had both the foresight and the courage to become the country that led the world in the struggle against catastrophic climate change.” — Sapa-DPA