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China steps up, slowly but surely, to address emissions issue

A worker labors at a wind farm in Shangyi, Hebei province. The Chinese government has set ambitious targets for renewable energy and has offered subsidies to wind-turbine companies as it pushes to transform an economy heavily reliant on coal for power and industrial production.
A worker labors at a wind farm in Shangyi, Hebei province. The Chinese government has set ambitious targets for renewable energy and has offered subsidies to wind-turbine companies as it pushes to transform an economy heavily reliant on coal for power and industrial production. (Associated Press)

Smaller details are getting attention, too. Xie said forcing supermarkets to charge for plastic bags reduced the use of the bags by two-thirds, saving the equivalent of about 30,000 barrels of oil a day.

Last week, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said the efforts are starting to pay off. The agency lowered its estimate of future Chinese greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, for all of China's efforts, its greenhouse gas emissions are likely to head upward.

Challenges remain

Hitting its renewable and nuclear energy targets will be challenging. The explosion in the number of wind turbines has created a transmission bottleneck; many turbines stand idle in Inner Mongolia and northeast China, awaiting new transmission lines and connections with the main power grids. The country lacks the skilled manpower to effectively construct, operate or regulate nuclear power stations. Key components might be in short supply, too.

All that contributes to China's continued reliance on coal -- and its reluctance to guarantee a ceiling on its emissions at the Copenhagen summit.

Another problem for China is energy inefficiency in buildings. Electricity and gas used by buildings account for a third of the country's emissions and 7 percent of the world's. Over the next decade, China is expected to add commercial real estate space far in excess of the existing commercial space in the United States.

China has passed new requirements, but enforcing them is difficult. Only 10 buildings have applied for recognition under a two-year-old green-building rating system, though more than 200 buildings have applied for certification under the U.S.-based LEED standards for energy efficiency, said David Hathaway, managing director of the consulting firm ICF International.

Hathaway said U.S. agencies and nongovernmental organizations are encouraging China's biggest property developers to adopt tough standards, and higher Chinese standards for appliances are helping. He said his firm had helped Jin Mao Tower in Beijing, the capital, shave 20 percent off its energy use.

In the United States, China's drive to rein in its carbon emissions has prompted some people to switch from worrying about "the China threat" to the global climate to worrying about the threat of China soon seizing the lead in clean-energy technology. Many people cite this new threat in order to spur U.S. climate efforts as well as bilateral cooperation.

"If they invest in 21st-century technologies and we invest in 20th-century technologies, they will win," said David Sandalow, assistant secretary for policy and international affairs at the Energy Department, who recently visited Beijing to explore areas for agreement during President Obama's trip here next month.


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