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Blazing a new path

Is the Western picture of a careless polluter a fair depiction of China? Derek Brower looks at the country's efforts to change its image

ONE THING eco-warriors and their enemies in the do-nothing brigade have in common is China. Because when it comes to climate change, China is the whipping boy for both opposing camps. For green campaigners, Beijing's apparent policy of economic growth at all costs is the prime example of the world's failure to take the threat of climate change seriously. For those who would rather avoid action in their own countries, China is a convenient scapegoat: if Beijing will not do anything, what is the point in doing something ourselves?

But both camps are in for a shock. Beijing is doing something. China remains home to many of the world's most polluted cities, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental think tank, and the World Bank. And it is determined to continue fuelling its rapid economic growth by burning coal – building two coal-fired power stations every week, according to some estimates.

But in between the regular scare stories in the Western press about China's apocalyptic ecological agenda, Beijing recently established a new climate-change policy (see box). In doing so, it was the first developing nation to put the issue at the centre of specific government policy. It might not be the policy shift that some in the West hope for – the new plan leaves out many specific targets – but it is more than many others feared.

A changing picture

And there are other developments that should add more shades to the picture of China. Off the coast of Shanghai, a UK-based engineering company is planning to build one of the world's first eco-cities – a model that it says could be replicated throughout China. Construction of Dongtan will begin later this year, says developer Arup. Totally sustainable and emissions free, it will be a vision of the future – lying within sight of Shanghai, a city that symbolises China's unstoppable rise.

Furthermore, opinion among climate-change campaigners is beginning to show signs of sympathy for China. Westerners blaming the country for its emissions are being hypocritical, suggests Greenpeace, because as globalisation sees more wealthy foreign companies relocate their industry and labour to China so too has their carbon footprint there increased. It might enter the atmosphere from China, but a "large share" of it is being emitted by industry serving Western firms, says Li Yan, climate and energy campaign manager of Greenpeace China.

That should not absolve China of its responsibility. The country depends on coal to meet 70% of its total primary energy demand, putting the dirtiest of the hydrocarbons in its economic engine. "China isn't going to stop using coal," says one analyst. "It's cheap and it's abundant." Coal demand in 2004 was 1.8bn tonnes. In 2030, it will be 5.3bn tonnes, says the International Energy Agency.

And the country's abundance of reserves – and willingness to use them – also puts an ace up Beijing's sleeve in negotiations with potential exporters of other types of energy to the country. Last year, negotiations between China and the developers of Australia's Gorgon liquefied natural gas (LNG) development broke down when Beijing decided it had been priced out of the contract.

That reflected a shift in China's attitude to LNG imports, signalling that Beijing would push development of that market at a much slower rate than expected by many producers. And, at the same time, weaker demand for natural gas has also given Beijing a stronger hand in negotiations with Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – three countries that all hope to export piped gas to China soon.

China would not be able to take those strategic decisions if it did not have its own stock of coal to draw on. But if gas' temporary defeat in China is coal's victory, the government's National Plan on climate change, published in June, indicates that there is scope for renewable energy and nuclear power to take up some of the slack. The plan was released on the eve of the June G8 summit, where climate change was tabled to be one of the main topics of discussion. Analysts said the timing was designed to steal some of the thunder from the industrialised nations ahead of a new declaration on climate change.

New renewable targets

It wrong-footed many of China's critics. In renewables, the government announced a target of 10% of total primary energy use by 2010. That is part of a longer-term goal to increase its share to 16% by 2020 – close to the European Union's (EU) own target of 20% by the same date. Critics in Europe have said the EU will be unlikely to meet its targets. But campaigners in China say the country's command economy should have fewer problems meeting its goals. That might be because they are modest. Beijing lowered its first renewables target from 20% by 2020 late last year. And the planned increase in alternative-energy use scratches at a surface beneath which the main resource is still coal.

Another caveat is that much of the headline 16% figure in China will be met by hydropower, a form of renewable energy in name only, given the damage large projects can inflict on local eco-systems, agriculture and populations.

Wind-power potential

But wind power is already popular, says Li. In the past two years, total installed wind capacity has grown by 100%, putting China in the top five of the world's wind-power generators. That is partly because of the effectiveness of a law from January 2006 promoting renewables, say analysts Li Junfeng and Shi Jinli, of the Energy Research Institute, and Ma Lingjuan, of the China Renewable Energy Industrial Association, in a recent report.

At last count, there were already 60 wind farms in the country, with a capacity of 1.266 gigawatts (GW). And the potential is immense: the authors say China could yield total wind resource of 3 terawatts. The government's target, of 5 GW and 30 GW by 2010 and 2020, respectively, is modest; but at least the potential is there. As for hydropower, Li, Shi and Ma put the potential at 400 GW. The target for 2010 and 2020 is 180 GW and 300 GW.

What the targets and eco-ideas show, say campaigners, is that China is beginning to take the problem of climate change seriously. The overriding concern of the Chinese has been, and remains, reducing chronic local pollution. But extreme weather and several ecological disasters in the country have shaped opinion on climate change in the last two years. Energy efficiency is on the agenda, says Li, with popular opinion driving some of the government action. China uses seven times as much energy as Japan per dollar of GDP, according to the World Bank.

Moral clout

Above all, the new policy statement represents a significant rhetorical development – even if the achievements of any policy change will only be judged over time. And it gives Beijing a degree of moral clout at the international table. Not that Beijing thinks it needs to justify itself. As June's National Plan makes clear, China believes the onus remains on developed countries to take responsibility for their emissions first.

China is famous for taking the long-term view and if Beijing is to wait for developed nations to stop discussing climate change and take action it may need to deploy that patience. In the meantime, the government says its own plans will "blaze a new path to industrialisation". At June's presentation of the plan, Ma Kai, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, said: "In its course of modernisation, China will not tread the traditional path of industrialisation, featuring high consumption and high emissions." Unlike Western industrialisation, China's will not leave such a horrible environmental legacy, he suggested.

And, knowing the world was watching, he shifted the onus back on the developed nations. After 200 years of their own carbon-intensive industrialisation, he suggested, their right to preach to China has been compromised. "The international community should respect the rights of the developing countries and allow them enough space for development. The consequences of inhibiting their development would be far greater than not doing anything to fight climate change."

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