20 January 2007
On 9 January 2007, this paper reported the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, as saying "If we end our emissions tomorrow, the growth in China will make up the difference within two years". His remarks were made during a Sky News broadcast during which he argued that the fight against climate change did not require any "unreasonable sacrifices" such as cutting back on long or short-haul holiday flights.
The comments represent a disturbing departure from the statement he made at the launch of the Stern Review on Climate Change just ten weeks earlier: "Unless we act now, not some distant time but now, these consequences, disastrous as they are, will be irreversible. So there is nothing more serious, more urgent or more demanding of leadership." A bit too demanding, it seems.
For me, the most disturbing aspect of this change of heart was the subtle way he sought to place the blame for global warming squarely at China's door – thus absolving himself (and us) of the need to alter our profligate life-styles in the least, in order to cut back on our own carbon emissions. Rather than see China take the dragon's share of the blame, I did a bit of research and came up with surprising results. As far as energy production is concerned, China was always ahead of the pack: between 475 – 221 BC the Chinese began to use coal for heating and smelting. They organised production and consumption to such an extent that by 1000 AD, it had become an industry!
With a current growth rate of 9% China has achieved economic advances in 30 years that took more than a century in the West. In the current 5-year plan, China aims for a 45% increase in GDP by 2010, coupled with a 20% reduction in energy consumption.
Today, seventy per cent of China's energy needs are met by coal. Every ten days another coal-fired power plant opens up somewhere in the country. Since it has little in the way of oil or gas reserves, China's future depends on coal and there are sufficient reserves of good quality coal to sustain its economic growth for a century.
In the 1990s, Chinese leaders began exploring a range of advanced technologies. China's largest coal firm, Shenhua Group, plans to complete the country's first coal-to-oil plant by 2008, which will pump out 20,000 barrels of synthetic oil per day. Eight further plants are planned by 2020, producing more than 30 million tons of synthetic oil annually – enough to save over 10 percent of China’s projected oil imports. Some 'China Watchers' complain that China's quest for oil is responsible for the global price-hike in petrol but in February 2006, the BBC's Beijing correspondent, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, put China's oil consumption in perspective: "It is more than a slight exaggeration to say that China is to blame for $70 a barrel oil prices. In fact, China, with a fifth of the world's population, consumes only 4% of the world's daily oil output. A lot to be sure, but far below American consumption."
Although the International Energy Agency forecasts that China will become the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2009, China is trying hard to make its coal cleaner, using the latest technology in new power plants. Where a supercritical boiler replaces an old boiler, carbon emissions are cut by 23%. China has 80% of the cleanest supercritical boiler stations available anywhere. Britain, where the technology was developed, has none.
Nor is China relying exclusively on coal. It is exploring other sources of energy including gas, nuclear, hydro-power and renewables, estimating that by 2020, fifteen percent of its energy will come from renewable sources. There are already 30 million solar households in China.
Mistakes are made - the world's most polluted cities are in China. A thousand new cars hit Beijing streets every day, yet local governments in one-third of Chinese cities have banned electric bikes and are trimming back bicycle lanes to make room for more cars! Nevertheless, the state-led enthusiasm with which China is pursuing environmentally-friendly energy is something we could learn from in Britain. Over half of all finished industrial goods in the world are made in China because Western companies take advantage of its cheap production costs. We are all responsible for the stress the planet is suffering.
Could we not lobby our government – despite Mr Blair's reluctance – to emulate China in her drive to cut carbon emissions and do it for its own sake?
As Edmund Burke said: "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little".