By Lu Ruai
At the end of October 2008 the Chinese government published its white paper, China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change. For Li Yan, Greenpeace's Chinese climate and energy resources project leader, the paper sent a significant message to the rest of the world. Li believes it underlines the Chinese government's deep understanding of the adverse impacts of climate change, and provides a detailed plan for addressing it.
The Impact of Climate Change
Over the past 50 years, the average annual temperature in China has risen by 1.1 degrees centigrade, a faster rise than anywhere else in the world. Following changes to the temperature, rainfall patterns in China have also changed. In southern China, particularly around the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze, rainstorms have become more frequent and flood fighting a public topic year in and year out. In contrast, North China, the southern part of Northeast China and the eastern part of Northwest China have suffered from ever more serious droughts, covering increasingly larger areas.
In a report about human development in 2007-2008, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) pointed out that by 2015, per capita carbon dioxide emissions in China will be up to 5.2 tons. Although this is just a quarter of the American figure of 19.3 tons, this rate will nonetheless be disastrous. Two-thirds of China's current glaciers, including the Tianshan Mountains, will disappear by 2060 and the rest will be gone by the end of this century.
Increasingly unpredictable climates are not the only problems created by a warming Earth. The unbalanced ratio between temperature rises and rainfall seriously threatens China's grain production. In March 2007, several Chinese government departments issued a joint report evaluating the possible results of climate change. According to the report, unless effective measures are adopted in a timely manner, China's production of wheat, rice and corn will decrease by 37 percent in the later half of the 21st century, a disastrous outcome in a country of 1.3 billion people.
China's crop production overall will decrease between 14 and 23 percent by 2050, claims Lin Erda and his colleagues at the Agricultural Environment and Sustainable Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. And due to climate change, the areas in China hit by natural disasters have grown to 50 million hectares. "Unless effective and timely measures are taken, in 20 years China will see a food shortfall of 5-10 percent," claims Lin.
According to experts, losses from climate change already equal, on average, three percent of China's annual GDP.
Coal: the Main Culprit
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded back in the late 1980s that the last half-century of rapid climate change has been caused by human activities, primarily industrialization. According to Lin Erda, these changes are the result of overusing petroleum and coal for 200 years, releasing a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it can remain for over a century. "We still have the carbon dioxide emitted by people who lived over 100 years ago," explains Lin. "The gas is like a heavy blanket over the earth, making our globe increasingly warmer."
In China, the main pollution source is coal
The True Cost of Coal, produced by Chinese energy research institutes under the auspices of Greenpeace, points out that coal makes up 70 percent of China's energy consumption. Annual coal production and sales both exceed 2.5 billion tons, making China the biggest coal miner and consumer in the world. Coal burning is the chief culprit of climate change and acid rain in China, producing 70 percent of the country's smoke and dust, 85 percent of its sulphur dioxide, and 67 percent of its nitrogen oxide.
Chinese people have heard of, and in some cases understand, the meaning of "climate change" and "global warming." But public awareness of the urgency and seriousness of the situation is far from adequate. Most people are confused about the sources of greenhouse gases and the question of how to reduce them.
Greenpeace is an international organization that works to protect the environment. Its climate change project has been going on in China for four years. "By making the public aware of the urgency and seriousness of global warming," says Li Yan, "we hope the entire society will wake up to the problem. In addition, we hope to prompt policy makers to take more active measures to improve energy structures."
"The publication of The True Cost of Coal is not the end of Greenpeace's efforts. The organization plans to make frequent visits to places seriously affected by coal consumption. Their objective is to encourage a reform in coal pricing. "As a Non-government Organization (NGO)," explains Li Yan, "all Greenpeace can do is conduct research programs or hold discussions, and pass suggestions onto related governmental departments. In 2006, Greenpeace was the only NGO invited by the Chinese government to contribute suggestions before the Renewable Energy Law became effective.
Li Yan and Liu Shuang, two representatives from Greenpeace China, made their non-governmental voice heard at the UN Climate Change Conference held in Poznan, Poland in December 2008.
"China's economic growth mode is facing a huge challenge," states Li Yan. "The past mode featuring high pollution and high energy consumption has seriously harmed the Chinese economy, as well as society, the environment and people's health. Development has been accompanied by huge waste of precious energy resources, most of which are not renewable."
Fortunately, both the Chinese government and the public have come to realize this. In the "Eleventh Five-year Plan," the government set an objective of reducing the energy consumed per unit of GDP by 20 percent, and pollutant emissions by 10 percent. Li Yan says this objective shows the government's serious concern and determination.
High-density carbon dioxide is being released from containers to cover a wheat plot 30 kilometers north of Beijing. This is the research lot of Lin Erda and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The purpose of their experiment is to simulate the carbon dioxide situation in the atmosphere 40 years from now, to measure the impact on wheat growth and to acquire the necessary data for the establishment of a long-term agricultural production mechanism able to withstand future natural disasters. More experiments of a similar nature are being conducted in national labs in the hope of finding an effective solution to climate change.
The environmental and energy problems that have unfolded in developed countries over the past 200 years have come to the fore within a much shorter timeframe in China. Developed countries have spent decades tackling these problems, but China is pressed for a quick solution. The challenge is monumentally difficult, said Premier Wen Jiabao at a forum about climate change technology development and transfers.
According to statistics from the International Energy Agency, China's energy consumption per unit of GDP is 4.3 times that of the United States, and 6.5 times that of the U.K. Compared with the average level of energy consumption in developed countries, every ton of cement produced in China cost 43 percent more, every ton of crude oil 56 percent more, and thermal power generation 22 percent more. Energy-saving and emissions reduction is consequently a tough challenge for China.
Experts and the government agree that more efforts should be made in the areas of technological innovation and the development of new forms of energy. Between 2000 and 2008, China's installed wind generating capacity increased from 0.34 million KW to 10 million KW, its hydropower generation capacity from 79.35 million KW to 163 million KW, and its nuclear generation capacity from 2.1 million KW to 8.85 million KW. In 2007 alone, China shut small thermal power generation units totaling 14.38 million KW of capacity. In addition, China closed over 10,000 small coalmines, plus many iron, steel and cement factories using outmoded production methods, taking out 46.59 million tons of production capacity for iron, 37.47 million tons for steel, and 52 million tons for cement. Closing down these small enterprises, according to Lin Erda, was a painful act, because though they were high energy consumers, they all contributed to local economies and provided employment.
Using science and technology to support environmental protection and cope with climate change has been a key task of China's Science and Technology Ministry. For this purpose, the investments in the first group of such projects during the Eleventh Five-year Plan were up to RMB 5 billion, double the figure of the previous plan. Vice Minister of Science and Technology Shang Yong admits there are huge economic pressures to put environmental protection technology and products to practical use, and to research and develop environmentally friendly vehicles. Much remains to be done before these products are affordable for consumers.