China’s Future, the World’s Future

China will soon surpass the U.S. in carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption. Its immense population and rapidly growing economy make for an environmental timebomb. But a veteran China correspondent finds signs of a turnaround

After an initial rush of excitement over writing a piece about China for YES!, a slow creep of dread and unease replaced the thrill. With global oil prices spiking because of China's rapacious growth in oil consumption and the country poised to replace the United States in the dubious role of world leader in carbon dioxide emissions, could I honestly write an article portraying as positive what is happening with China and fossil fuels?

My doubts were not erased, but amplified, after some initial phone calls to environmental leaders in China were met with long pauses when I asked for suggestions on positive stories.

But I was not deterred. I made a pact with myself—I would keep asking until I found something positive, and be honest about the complexities of China, while focusing on the light, not the dark.

China is important to me. I take what is happening there to heart. In many ways it is my home, and I am protective of it. I have spent nearly half of my life there, as a foreign correspondent and businessman from 1986 to 2002. During that time, I experienced what I consider to be one of the most dramatic periods of transformation in world history—from the brief ecstasy of free expression in the late 1980s and the might of totalitarianism in snuffing it out, to a shift toward capital markets and the massive spiritual, economic, and social changes that came with that shift, including the beginnings of civil society. (When the United States industrialized, it had fewer than 80 million people, and it took around 40 years to do it. China has nearly 20 times that number of people, and it is industrializing at hyper-drive speed, manufacturing not only for itself but for the rest of the world.)

I believe it is essential that all of us not only understand what is going on in China, but that we become active agents for making it better. Unless we do something urgent, my two-year-old son will enter adulthood in a world neither he nor I want to contemplate.

When I first arrived in China, Beijing was one big bicycle lane, as was the rest of China. There were no private cars—no one had the money and even if they had, private car ownership was prohibited by the government. The few cabs on the road catered to the few foreigners who paid in the equivalent of U.S. dollars.

In less than 20 years, all that has changed. By the mid-1990s, the taxi population had hit 65,000, and private car ownership was not only allowed but it flourished. The quiet flow of bikes has been replaced by chaos in motion, albeit slow motion, since road infrastructure fails to keep pace with the number of vehicles and emissions often create a haze so thick it defines torpor.

China's GDP (gross domestic product) is about equivalent to that of California, but its carbon emissions are second in the world and on track to surpass U.S. emissions by 2025. In the east coast cities of China, there is now an 80 percent year-on-year increase in private auto sales. Every major auto manufacturer from around the globe is rushing to China to set up production lines. (A weekly e-mail newsletter I receive recently had DaimlerChrysler, Volkswagen, and Honda all announcing production plants for China—a typical week). China is now the world's second largest oil importer after the U.S. and expected to become the world's largest car importer within 10 years.

Coal, the main source of electricity in China, is wreaking havoc on the environment. Because of voracious electricity demand in industry and increasingly in homes, China is building two new coal-fired plants a week to try to meet its needs.

I'm not afraid to admit this information had a paralyzing effect on me. Where can the positive be?


Economies of scale

Here's where optimism started to creep in: Although I am shocked by how few people inside and outside China are working on renewable energy in China given the magnitude of the problem, the past 18 months have resulted in a new sense among this small but growing community that change is possible, or more accurately, that change is unavoidable. As Jennifer Turner of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center put it: “Things are starting to stick.”

Even if China's central and local governments don't have a collective conscience pushing them to move to renewables for the good of the planet, they have no economic choice. The central government has acknowledged the clashes between peaking world oil production and China's burgeoning economy, and between maintaining growth and preserving public health. From here on in, the response will be a question of degree—and each degree will count.

The flip side of the statistics about China's massive thirst for fossil fuel is that because China is so huge, even modest adoption rates of solar, wind, hydrogen, and other renewables could mean the price of renewable energy and related technology drops globally. China could create previously unknown economies of scale. Imagine that.

China's national legislature is now pushing through a law that would promote renewable energy use, beginning as early as 2006. “Instead of just policies and regulations, this would elevate renewables to being law,” says Wang Wanxing of the Energy Foundation, a U.S.-based group that has been at the vanguard of work with China on alternatives to fossil fuel.

According to Wang, China will have about 900 gigawatts of energy capacity by 2020, more than double what it had at the end of 2003. The government recently committed to having 120 gigawatts, or 13 percent of that, be renewable (China includes nuclear power as a renewable energy), including 20 gigawatts from wind (or half the current worldwide wind power capacity).

China is estimated to have about 250 gigawatts of potential wind capacity. Wind is proving to be an economical alternative to cheap and dirty coal, as a recent program along the coast has shown.

The government is encouraging private investment in wind power through the auctioning of wind concessions. Companies bidding on the first two concessions in September 2003 paid prices that were competitive with the cost of electricity from a new coal plant. The experiment is being expanded to include three more concessions, leading me to envision a “ring of wind” circling the country from the south in Guangdong province north to Inner Mongolia, and west to Xinjiang. In a relatively short time, a completely new mechanism for encouraging investment in wind power has already created half a gigawatt of new capacity. It may be a fraction of the 35 to 40 gigawatts of additional installed capacity that China requires each year, but it still represents a huge advance. According to Wang, “The government has put wind high on the agenda for development.”


Smarter transportation

For such changes to matter, China must figure out how to balance a desire to make the automotive industry a cornerstone of economic prosperity with preventing a greenhouse gas nightmare. Recent moves by several major Chinese cities to ban bicycles from downtown streets to provide more room for cars is a sign of this pull toward car culture. Yet many of the same cities are exploring ways to boost mass transit, especially bus rapid transit (BRT), which creates dedicated lanes for buses to go station-to-station with subway-like efficiency.

The Chinese government froze continued funding for subway and light rail in 2003 because of expense. By doing so, it left every big city mayor in China in a quandary, faced with a huge and growing demand for vehicles and a standstill in road infrastructure. “How do you move people in the megacities of the world, especially China? Private cars won't work, and subways are too expensive,” says Doug Ogden, also of the Energy Foundation, which is helping spearhead the BRT effort in six cities.

“Two years ago the BRT concept was unknown in China,” Xu Kangming told me. Xu is shuttling around the country working to convince cities to adopt BRT. His efforts are succeeding. “More and more cities are starting to do some preliminary planning and explore the opportunity to implement BRT.”

Among cities adopting or seriously considering BRT are Beijing, Kunming, Xian, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Chengdu, whose metropolitan areas together encompass 75 million people. Other smaller cities such as Changzhou and Yangzhou in Jiangsu are also adopting BRT though collaborations with Germany. Advocates of BRT are hoping Beijing and Shanghai will serve as working models for other cities to learn from and emulate.

Beijing wants a big chunk of its BRT system in place in time for its hosting of the 2008 Olympics. It is currently building a 15.6-kilometer corridor in the city's southeast corner, scheduled for completion at the end of this year, with plans for 300 more kilometers over the next several years.

Beijing already has one of the largest compressed natural gas (CNG) bus fleets in the world, and it has set a goal of converting 90 percent of its 11,000 buses to CNG by 2008. There are moves in China to introduce hybrid electric engines into buses, which could be converted to use fuel cells.

When I first started studying China 20 years ago, I took a short class from professor Jonathan Chaves, and he pointed out to me something that I had never stopped to notice. When you look at classical Chinese painting, amid the craggy mountains and wind-swept clouds and mist, any people that are depicted are a small part of their surroundings. You have to look hard to spot the people in the paintings—very different from most Western painting, in which the individual is the center of attention. I take hope from that, and believe that the Chinese will demonstrate enlightenment by drawing on the best parts of their long heritage, while learning from our short one to avoid making the same mistakes.

When I called Elizabeth Economy, author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future, she held out hope, too, despite the darkness of the book's title. “The most important thing that is happening is the rise of NGOs and civil society in China. … The burden and opportunity both are with the citizen and the media, and that's where you see the broadest change. That's where I see the greatest hope and greatest excitement.”

Though they are in their infancies, a number of environmental NGOs have appeared in China since the late 1990s. They include the awareness group Global Village, Green Student Organizations, the volunteer legal aid group Grassroots Community, and Greenroots Power and Snowland Great Rivers and Environmental Protection Association, both aimed at protecting rivers. Many others are emerging. Liang Congjie, one of the first environmental activists in China and founder of Friends of Nature in 1996, said, “It sometimes may not seem like much, but it's a seed.

Translating policy into action at the local level, where city governments tend towards myopic self-interest, is crucial. The rise of civil society at the local level will provide a bottom-up dynamic to the traditionally top-down Chinese system.

 “The environment,” Economy says, “is at the forefront of the rise of civil society in China.”


William Brent was a reporter and editor for Agence France Presse in China. He is director of (see page 60), and partner in the Shanghai media company Cinezoic.



No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.