I present to you a vision of the future: China has already leapfrogged to where we in the West will be within a decade, using coal to power our economies and cities as conventional worldwide oil production continues to decline. The pollution is the sight and smell of economic growth.
There are only 270 days left until the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. Between now and the time when the torch is lit and the “Green” games start, 38 new pulverised-coal fired power plants will open.
Statement after statement about how this Olympiad will be environmentally friendly, and the amazing lengths China is going to regarding alternative energy power generation in Beijing, is plastered around the news media daily. That is the truth - well, half of it. Media releases seem to conveniently leave out the other half of the information: While there is tremendous focus on this single city in Green development, the remainder of the country is left behind in a haze of contaminants and smokestack particulates settling on nearly every square centimetre of land except a few isolated pockets in remote mountainous areas.
On one hand, China claims to the world it is going green to help us all against climate change and pollution control. But reading the newspapers - for example, “Nation not a Threat to World Energy” in the China Daily - paints a different picture. That article boldly claims that coal accounts for 70 per cent of the country’s energy needs and with proven reserves of one trillion tons, these reserves can satisfy Chinese demand for the next 100 years.
We need to look deeper into the mind set of Chinese society to understand why this is happening and why coal use is set to intensify as our planet experiences a further drop in conventional crude oil production.
Chinese society is complex in ways Westerners overlook or do not understand. “Mianzi” or “face”, for example, is the biggest stumbling block to our understanding consumption patterns of commodities and electricity usage in modern China. “Mianzi” is best explained as reputation, social standing or how others see you in their eyes. The Chinese are pre-occupied with “mianzi” to the point that decisions made in life are all about appearance. This includes government and business decisions. In order to continue with a roaring economy that pollutes along the way, China has to “make face” with Western governments showing they are committed to help solve their own pollution problems from within.
This is their front face, what lies behind is the true face. There are always two faces to everything in China.
Construction of hundreds more pulverised-coal-fired power plants assures coal will likely remain the fuel of choice for many decades in China. Despite the economic, social, and environmental problems coal creates, it is the fuel that will allow the Chinese energy sector to continue expanding along with coal affiliated mega-corporations involved in power generation, utilities, railroads, mining - and all the jobs in between - listed on the Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets.
Unemployment is the biggest concern for the central government at the moment using an economic growth policy focused on creating as many jobs as possible supersedes environmental protection every day of the week.
China’s national renewable-energy law went into effect in January 2006, offering financial incentives for renewable energy development. Chinese authorities want to generate 16 per cent of their energy needs from renewables by 2020; this includes small and large scale hydropower, wind, biomass, and solar power. Gargantuan expansions of nuclear power and coal to liquids projects are on the books as well.
Forecast coal output is expected to reach 2.7 billion tons in 2010. In the first half of 2007, China generated 1,122 billion kilowatt hours (kw/h) of electricity, up 13 per cent from last year. During the six-month period, hydro-electric generators provided a total of 156 billion kw/h, increasing 22 per cent year on year; thermal-electric generators provided 940 billion kw/h, up 12 per cent; nuclear generators provided 26 billion kw/h, up 15 per cent, according to the China Electricity Council (CEC). Even at 16 percent renewable energy generation by 2020 the enormity of coal consumed to generate over 6 billion kW will increase total coal usage exponentially compared with today.
Predictions for substitution levels of hundreds of millions of kilowatt hours to be reached are “mianzi” driven and notoriously uncertain, if not overstated, to “gain face” on the international stage. Feasibility studies of these projections are in question especially with severe water shortages plaguing the country. Talk of the country being able to reduce its reliance on coal is disheartening when one looks at the increases in coal mining, usage and importation in the last two years, which were at the highest levels ever.
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