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China steps up, slowly but surely
Driven by climate concerns and a desire to modernize its economy, Beijing has begun addressing the emissions issue

By Steven Mufson
Saturday, October 24, 2009

LANGFANG, CHINA -- At a gleaming new research center outside Beijing, about 250 engineers and researchers from the ENN Group are trying to figure out how to make energy use less damaging to the world's climate.

In a large greenhouse, hundreds of tubes hold strains of algae being tested for how much carbon dioxide they can suck from the air. Outside, half a dozen brands of solar panels are being matched for performance against the company's own. Next door, large blocks of earth, carved out of Inner Mongolia, have been trucked in to test for new methods of gasifying coal underground.

The private company is part of a growing drive by China to work out a way to check the rapid growth of its massive emissions of greenhouse gases. Seeking to transform an economy heavily dependent upon coal for electric power and industrial production, the government has closed down old cement and coal plants, subsidized row upon row of new wind turbines and taken other measures.

Among members of the U.S. Congress and negotiators preparing for a December climate summit in Copenhagen, China is often considered an obstacle because it has not committed to imposing a ceiling on its emissions of the gases that most scientists blame for climate change. China produces the most carbon emissions in the world, and the output is likely to continue growing for two decades. When President Hu Jintao pledged at the United Nations last month to lower the country's carbon intensity "by a notable margin," that was regarded as a step forward.

Yet, in visible and less visible ways, China has begun to address its emissions problem. The steps are driven in part by the parochial concern that climate change could worsen the flooding that plagues the country's low-lying coastal regions, including Shanghai, and cause water shortages in western areas as glaciers in the Himalayas melt away.

But China has also begun to see energy efficiency and renewable energy as ingredients for the type of modern economy it wants to build, in part because it would make the nation's energy sources more secure.

"We think this is a new business for us, not a burden," said Gan Zhongxue, who left a job as a top U.S. scientist for the giant ABB Group to head up research and development at ENN, the Langfang company that made its fortune as the dominant natural gas distributor in 80 Chinese cities.

In the right direction

For China, the challenge is immense. On average, a Chinese person emits one-fifth as much greenhouse gas as an American; an overwhelming majority of Chinese do not own cars; and half the population in China still lacks access to winter heating. But its economy is growing so quickly and prosperity is spreading so rapidly that China's demand for energy is destined to increase even if it uses less for every dollar of economic output. The State Grid's economic research institute forecasts an 85 percent increase in electricity demand by 2020.

Still, China has taken significant steps in the past five years. It removed subsidies for motor fuel, which now costs more than it does in the United States; its fuel-efficiency standard for new urban vehicles is 36.7 miles per gallon, a level the United States will not reach for seven years. It has set high efficiency standards for new coal plants; the United States has none. It has set new energy-efficiency standards for buildings. It has targeted its 1,000 top emitters of greenhouse gases to boost energy efficiency by 20 percent. And it has shut down many older, inefficient industrial boilers and power plants.

"Regardless of whether the United States passes its own legislation, China will take positive measures because this is a requirement for our own economy to conserve resources," said Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission and China's point man in international climate talks. If China mimics the West's wasteful modernization path, he said, the environment would not be livable.

In climate talks, China has argued that industrialized nations should do more to slow the pace of climate change compared with developing nations, where raising living standards is the priority. China has also noted the cumulative emissions of advanced economies since the Industrial Revolution. And some Chinese commentators have accused Western nations of using a carbon cap as a way to contain China's advancement.

Nonetheless, the government has set ambitious targets for renewable energy, which is supposed to account for 15 percent of the country's fuel mix by 2020, and for tree planting, to boost forest cover to 20 percent of China's land mass by the end of next year. China plans to quadruple its nuclear power; by the end of next year, it may have 18 nuclear energy plants under construction, half of the world's total under construction.

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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