How can China escape smog and fight global warming?

Chinese delegates discussed how China can clean up its smog problem at the Global Green Growth Forum
© C. Lepisto

It started with a bit of joking between Ma Jun and another panelist about whether the rumors are true that the US Embassy started the peaceful revolution by publishing results from its own air pollution monitor.

At the Global Green Growth Forum (3 GF) in Copenhagen this week, attendees heard Ma Jun, Director at the Institute of Public and Environmental affairs of China speak candidly about how online activism broke China's official silence on smog and got some insights on the outlook for China's energy future.

The view from inside a peaceful revolution

Jun downplayed the role of the Embassy, focusing instead on the Chinese micro-blogging networks where the data went viral. In the face of a growing number of voices criticizing the choking smog levels, the Chinese government had to decide whether to censor the trending data, or act on the concerns of the people. Jun reflects the tense moments as the inner circle considered. We all know the result: In a move that surprised many, the government began publishing air pollution measurements they had previously kept secret and started implementing actions to reduce the smog.

© C. Lepisto

Thank goodness for smog

The smog may be the world's best hope; this visceral deterrent to fossil fuel burning motivates actions that will help control climate change as well. At 3 GF the Director for the China National Renewable Energy Centre (CNREC), Wang Zhongying, shows the emissions in different areas of China. Beijing doesn't look so bad, but Zhongying explains that Beijing is surrounded by HuBei, which shows much higher emissions, although these are still dwarfed by other areas (image above).

Zhongying goes on to present the stark facts facing China and the globe: China has already surpassed the USA to become the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. But the emissions per capita in China remain a fraction of the amount of warming attributable to each US citizen. The figures make it clear: As China's economy continues to grow, and especially as the population becomes wealthier and looks to western standards of living as a goal, the projected emissions from China alone could doom any hopes of keeping climate change within manageable ranges.

Two scenarios have been modeled by CNREC: the projected growth of emissions on the current path, and an ideal path with the optimal growth in non-fossil fuel sources of energy. Zhongying emphasizes that these projections represent the work of CNREC and not the policy of the Chinese government.

On the current path, China's share of energy from renewable sources climbs from 9% to 20% by 2050, with 33% from non-fossil fuels. The ideal path would set ambitions for 56% renewables, with 69% of energy coming from non-fossil fuels. Tripling of hydropower, from 200 GW to 600 GW is assumed in both scenarios. Debate ensues about the role of nuclear power, which both scenarios assume will grow about ten-fold to 100 GW capacity by 2050.

Tan Zaixing, Director of the China Development Bank, comments on the question of whether there is any concrete planning and whether economic liberalization could help to promote the investment required for the ideal path:

From the banking sector point of view, the capital sector will be liberalized, more open. From the current point of view, there are [options like] biomass, photovoltaic which favor investment by smaller companies whereas the large investments required in traditional energies close out SMEs. [We are] inspired by Germany to plan new and concrete measures.

Shi Lishan, Vice Director General of the National Energy Administration (NEA) comments on nuclear question:

In 2022, Germany will be out of nuclear. Currently China targets 400 Megawatts of nuclear capacity by 2017. The energy consumption in China is such a large figure; we would like to adopt more natural gas and renewables but also nuclear energy. In 2020, non fossil fuel is to be 20% of the mix. Mr. Wang already noted that many institutions and government bodies study together how to improve what is done now. We can say that in the 70's no one could predict that China would become what it is now with such tremendous economic growth; I cannot predict if maybe in 30 years renewables would be 60%, or like Denmark, China will be out of fossil fuels later, but we are making efforts.

Most of the attendees with whom I spoke at 3 GF express little hope that an international consensus on global warming can be reached and signed into effect by 2015, or think that if such an agreement emerges, it will represent lowest common denominators rather than ambitious policy goals. People here are putting a lot of hope in the types of studies being done by CNREC, and in the sum of ambitious individual projects to make inroads where international consensus fears to tread. Let us hope they are right.

This article is part of a series on how public private partnerships featured at the Global Green Growth Forum (3 GF) lead us toward real and tangible solutions to sustainability problems the world faces.

© C. Lepisto, cartoons by Karen Leth, Sketchy Banana, and DrawMore

3GF proceedings were cartooned by:

Tags: Air Pollution | China | Coal | Copenhagen

Best of TreeHugger