As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues its next assessment focusing on how we can mitigate global warming's daunting threats, we can look to China for some inspiration.
That may sound counter-intuitive. After all, China builds a coal plant every week and the electric-capacity equivalent of a Three Gorges Dam every 16 months. It is expected to surpass the United States as the worlds largest emitter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2009, a decade earlier than expected.
Daily some 14,000 cars are added to already congested urban roads, displacing millions of bicyclists. Pollution levels greatly exceed World Health Organization health standards, causing respiratory illnesses to become chronic and smoky skies the norm. Drought affects 66 million acres of agricultural land, and desertification afflicts some 750 million acres of mainly grasslands, with winds whipping sandstorms that travel all the way to North America.
Yet even against that bleak backdrop, a number of analysts believe that China may be on the cusp of a dramatic new energy paradigm that could push it ahead of other nations when it comes to environmentally friendly energy efficiency and renewable energy. Why is this?
Chinese leaders recently enacted laws that, for the first time ever, set as the nations top priorities aggressive pursuit of the 4Es (efficiency of energy, water, resources, and land), pollution prevention and waste reduction, and rapid growth of renewable energy. China has set a goal of reducing the energy intensity per dollar of GDP by 4 percent per year through 2010. The Bush Administrations goal is 1.8 percent per year, roughly business as usual.
Are these ambitious laws and goals which well exceed any U.S. efforts for real? More explicitly, dont the entrenched bureaucracy and national industries with vested interests in capturing the $20 trillion of revenues from the planned construction of coal, large-scale hydro, and nuclear power plants pose an obvious barrier to the success of these goals?
After years of working in China and meeting with Chinese business leaders, government officials and regulators and other conservationists I know the goals are not only real, they are reachable.
One of the most exciting changes is several provinces adoption of integrated energy resource planning (IRP), which enables aggregated demand-side efficiency options to compete with new power plants. Through this concept, an Efficiency Power Plant (EPP) a bundle of investments in energy-conserving technologies fills the same power needs as a conventional power plant by saving electricity rather than producing it. Shanghai and Beijing provinces have joined Jiangsu province, the first to innovate, in adopting IRP.
A fundamental strength of IRP with EPPs is the transparency it brings to decisions now often made without comparison of costs, risks, and benefits against the full portfolio of options. For example, 60 percent of Chinas electricity is consumed by industrial drive systems motors, pumps, compressors, and fans. Efficiency upgrades to these systems achieve 30 percent savings at five times less cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than building new generation to power the inefficient ones.
Worldwide, transforming the motor market would save 2 trillion kWh per year, equal to one-fourth of all coal plants to be built through 2030, while reducing global energy bills by $240 billion per decade. Potential savings in China are worth $100 billion per decade by eliminating the need for 378 terawatt-hours of energy per year equivalent to 63 EPPs each 1000 megawatts (MW) in size.
This initiative also would avoid the shipment of 147 million tons of coal each year in nearly 1.5 million railroad cars, prevent the annual release of 420 million tons of carbon dioxide and 2.3 million tons of sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide pollutants, and conserve 9.5 trillion gallons of water per year.
China can save an estimated half of the $10 trillion it plans to spend for power plants built between now and 2030 to be operated over 30-plus years. How? Chinas economy is anticipated to increase fourfold over the next two decades. This includes a projection for China to build half of all new buildings in the world. This gives regulators and policymakers abundant opportunities to provide incentives for this growth to promote radical gains in energy (and water and resource) efficiency.
Providing the incentives and technical assistance for manufacturers to install high-efficiency motors, pumps, and compressors and produce higher efficiency goods; for builders to design and construct zero-net-energy green buildings; and for builders, retailers, and customers to install the top 10 percent most efficient appliances, lights, consumer electronics, and office electronic equipment, could cut in half the electricity services otherwise provided by power plants powering inefficient devices, equipment and buildings.
A portion of the $5 trillion saved in power plant construction costs could instead go toward incentives and technical assistance to achieve the savings investments, with the remainder going toward additional economic activity. Moreover, this energy savings could avoid several times this amount in health and environmental damages, including preventing 16 billion tons per decade of carbon dioxide emissions and some 90 million tons of acid rain and urban smog pollutants.
For China to truly make this transformation will require implementing a highly effective IRP/EPP regulatory process, reinforced by other key policy tools and regulatory actions. With China annually producing several hundred million appliances and constructing more than 20 billion square feet (2 billion square meters) of new buildings, the Chinese market needs more stringent standards and effective enforcement mechanisms and the transfer of more efficient technologies for appliances. Introduction of international best practices in enforcement and monitoring of standard compliances is also critically needed.
Wind-generated electric energy is another promising avenue for China. In 2005 the Chinese government established a goal of achieving 30,000 megawatts of installed wind capacity by 2020. An increase of 10,000 megawatts from the goal of just a year earlier, this goal raised the targeted annual growth rate from 20 percent to 24 percent. However, wind industry experts are confident that 170,000 megawatts of capacity (generating about 340 TWh per year) is economically feasible. The 39 percent annual growth rate is achievable, they argue, if utility pricing policies can be reformed.
Clearly, China has a long way to go before it becomes the world leader in environmentally friendly renewable energy. But the economic incentives to embrace a new energy paradigm are so strongly linked with quality of life that more and more Chinese business leaders, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations are advocating for new public policies, incentives, and regulations enforcement that will accelerate implementation of the 4Es. Todays China also has an increasingly active civil society demanding cleaner air and water, and less industrial contamination. Add to this the digital revolution, enabling rapid sharing and accessing of knowledge resources. More than 350 million Chinese have e-mail access, with this number projected to reach one of every three citizens by 2010.
China is often viewed by Americans as an arch economic competitor. In this new age of climate change, we will do well to take a different view of China as an ally and support efforts that could dramatically mitigate the many threats climate change poses to us all.
This article is an adaptation of Michael Totten's feature appearing in the March/April 2007 issue of SOLAR TODAY magazine. Access www.solartoday.org. Totten is senior director of Climate, Water, and Ecosystem Services at Conservation International.