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China and low carbon economy
By Lau Nai-keung (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-20 07:50

Recently on my way to Dunhuang, the Gansu city of caved Buddha fame, I was fascinated by what must be the largest wind farm on earth. These magnificent modern windmill arrays gently churned along both sides of the highway for miles forging a beautiful and highly unforgettable sight. Local officials later confirmed that this is the largest wind farm on earth, and it is situated in the city of Yumen, the first oil field in modern China. Its current capacity is 420,000 kilowatts, to be expanded by the year-end to 1 million kilowatts and ultimately to 10 million.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Projects of similar size are now being commissioned in six clusters all over North China, and one along the coast of Zhejiang, with a total planned capacity approaching 120 million kilowatts. These wind farms have to be huge to meet the economic and stability requirements to join the national power grid. Wind energy is now part and parcel of the Chinese national power supply system.

Wind energy is only part of the story. China is now leading the world in clean coal power plants, nuclear plant technology and is also the largest manufacturer of solar voltaic cells. The government has already earmarked 3 trillion yuan ($440 billion) until 2020 for the development of new energy. Compare this figure with the Obama-Biden platform pledge (that is, still words) of $150 billion in the coming decade to make new energy the next growth engine for the US economy, and one can appreciate the determination of the Chinese government in this direction.

By 2020, new energy is expected to constitute 17 percent of the country's power supply - to the tune of 290 million kilowatts. Of this, 86 million kilowatts will come from nuclear power, 150 million from wind, 20 million from solar power, and 30 million from bio-energy. With such a gigantic commitment, China will no doubt become the world leader in new energy in the coming decade.

New energy is an important component of the now popular low carbon economy. Another equally important component is transportation. In the 11th Five-Year Plan starting 2006, rail transportation has been designated as the major mode for the country, with a total investment of 1.25 trillion yuan in the five-year period. By 2020, there will be 120,000 km of railways crisscrossing the country, of which 16,000 km will be high-speed passenger railway handling trains of over 200 km per hour. In the aftermath of the international financial crisis, investment in rail transportation has been greatly accelerated. A total of 3.5 trillion yuan has been allocated for the next three years - a six-fold increase, and which can never happen in any other country. New figures are yet to be released, but the rate of transformation towards a much lower emission mode of transportation is obviously accelerated.

Even in terms of conventional cars, BYD, a Shenzhen car manufacturer in which Warren Buffett has a stake, is leading the world in hybrid technology. While other cars in the market are oil first and battery second as a back-up, the BYD hybrid is one step ahead. It is a fully chargeable electric car with oil as back-up. Besides, other hybrids use conventional lithium-based batteries which will explode on impact, but BYD has developed an iron battery which is much safer, and uses more readily available and cheaper material. Needless to say, it will be very simple for BYD to switch its production line to electric cars once peripheral facilities such as charging stations are in place. Unlike other industrialized countries, the oil and auto industry's vested interests are not that powerful, and the auto economy is still in embryonic form. Like Warren Buffett, I am more optimistic about the popularization of electric cars in China.

Another buzz in the now fashionable low carbon economy is "carbon capture and storage technology". The Western countries have developed this expensive technology, which they themselves cannot afford and are eager to push it to China. The world's most efficient carbon capture and storage mechanism is photosynthesis through green vegetation. Since 2000 China has been the only developing country that manages to consistently increase its forest coverage. Starting from 16.6 percent in 2000, it is expected to reach 20 percent in 2010, an amazing feat by any account. China is also leading the world in reclaiming farmland from deserts and soil erosion, at a rate of about 3,000 sq km per year - an area larger than Luxembourg. An increasing amount of carbon is being captured and stored this old-fashioned way.

Strictly speaking, per capita wise, China is a low carbon emitting country - less than one-fifth of the Americans - although its total emission is very high in the world. From China's point of view, water pollution is of a higher priority, because the threats are clear and immediate. As a developing country, China is not subject to any emission target. However, in the current 11th Five-Year Plan, the government has earmarked 500 billion yuan to treat air contamination. The growth rate of greenhouse gases emission has fallen significantly, to 1.5 percent yearly. Starting July 2007, the country stopped all production and importation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, three years ahead of the Montreal Protocol 2010 deadline for developing countries.

Having committed so much on a low carbon economy, China can now take the moral high ground at the Copenhagen Summit to extract more concessions from industrialized countries for the common good.

The author is a member of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Basic Law Committee of the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

(China Daily 08/20/2009 page8)