Powering China: keeping the lights on in the world’s biggest country and why it matters to you

Poised on the brink of superpowerdom, questions around China’s energy use matter to all of us. How much is needed and where will it come from? I explored these ideas in this article which was first published in Asian Global Impact http://www.agimag.co.uk/ (Issue 07: May/June 2013).

Few countries are as confusing to the non-specialist as China.  Unlike neighbouring giant India, the People’s Republic does not seem to wear its soul on its sleeve. Its politics, save the odd spectacular scandal, sit obscurely behind rows of soberly-suited individuals with motives hard for outsiders to fathom, while learning its language has been described in a previous AGI issue as like running a marathon.

Perhaps most confusing of all is China’s position with regard to climate change and sustainable energy. With over a quarter of global carbon emissions to its name, and at least five years of topping charts as the world’s highest emitter (currently followed by the US and India), China’s potential threat to humankind can hardly be ignored. Meanwhile, nearly a third of the world’s existing coal-fired power stations are in China, as are a similar proportion of the 1,200 or so in planning and it is easy to paint China as the big bad wolf.

Easy but lazy. As the world’s most populous country, should its carbon footprint really surprise us? And as a rapidly industrialising economy with over 100 million still living below the international poverty line can we simply condemn it? In any case, when it comes to per capita emissions, China only weighs in at about 70th place, well behind the Gulf states, the US and most of Europe.  China is also a world leader in renewable energy production and manufacture and meets nearly 10% of its overall energy demand from non-fossil fuels. Encouraging though this may be, it is not unalloyed good news: the biggest chunk of this power comes from hydroelectric plants such as the notorious Three Gorges Dam which has required the relocation of over a million people and is associated with landslides and loss of habitats.

The confusion extends to the political sphere. Those who condemn China’s approach to the environment as uniformly disastrous might be disconcerted to discover that its 2007 National Action Plan on Climate Change was the first of its kind in developing world. The plan sets out ambitions to increase renewable energy and nuclear power while improving the efficiency of coal-fired power stations. At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, China announced a “carbon intensity reduction target” which means a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output – in this case a 40-45% reduction by 2020 compared to 2005 levels (compare India’s simultaneously-announced target of 24%). Judging by performance to date, it seems plausible that the target will be achieved by continuing the drive to improve energy efficiency while increasing the proportion of energy demand supplied from renewable sources.

But reducing carbon intensity is not the same as reducing overall carbon emissions: intensity is simply measured in relation to the overall economy, so if the economy grows faster than carbon intensity reduces, overall emissions will increase. Indeed, analysts predict that China’s GDP will triple in the 2005-2020 period meaning that a 45% reduction in carbon intensity will still result in a 65% increase in total emissions.  To date, there have been few signs, if any, that China would be prepared to commit to a legally binding emissions reduction target. In fact, outgoing premier Wen Jibao has repeatedly pointed out that China’s commitment to addressing climate change will need to be balanced against its commitment to economic development and has reminded the industrialised West of its historical responsibility for current global greenhouse gas levels.

What impact China’s new administration will have remains to be seen, but there are already signs of an aggressive boom in hydropower projects such as the Nu River Dam, which Wen Jibao had previously suspended in the face of widespread opposition. His successor, Li Kequiang, announced his support for the solar industry late last year, although it is unclear how this sits with Mr Wen’s earlier statement that China would put an end to the “blind expansion” in this industry and focus more on nuclear power, hydropower and shale gas (in addition to the ubiquitous coal), none of which could be described as entirely uncontroversial.

Maybe, just maybe, our hope must ultimately rest with China’s greatest asset and liability combined – its 1.3 billion strong population.  Unlike in India, environmental activism is not a prominent feature of Chinese public life, although the government policy of wen wei (maintaining stability at all costs, usually by quashing dissent) has occasionally played in protesters’ favour when carrots are judged more effective than sticks. Recent public protests have resulted in the suspension of a new coal plant in Haimen, near Shanghai; the scrapping of a proposed waste water pipeline in nearby Qidong; and the relocation of a chemical plant in Dalian in the north. While it is hard to gauge whether these acts of nimbyism will simply see the same infrastructure imposed on other, less vocal communities, they nevertheless provide a faint but much-needed glow of hope that people power may have a place in Chinese politics.

Amongst all the confusion, perhaps only one thing can be said with any clarity: whatever course China takes in the coming decades – carbon intensity, carbon reduction, energy efficiency, hydropower – it is going to be of the utmost importance to all of us.