Skies darkening over China

China’s reliance on polluting coal for energy may be getting the country into longterm environmental trouble:

A GREAT coal rush is under way across China on a scale not seen anywhere since the 19th century.

Its consequences have been detected half a world away in toxic clouds so big that they can seen from space, drifting across the Pacific to California laden with microscopic particles of chemicals that cause cancer and diseases of the heart and lung.

Nonetheless, the Chinese plan to build no fewer than 500 new coal-fired power stations, adding to some 2,000, most of them unmodernised, that spew smoke, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.

It is the political fallout of that decision that is likely to challenge the foundations on which Britain and other developed nations have built their climate change policy — even as there are signs that ordinary Chinese citizens are at last rebelling against lives spent in poisonous conditions.

Cloaked in swirling mists of soot particles and smoke, cities such as China’s “coal capital” of Datong are entering the coldest period of winter in which demand for power and heating produces the worst pollution.

It is often darkness at noon in Datong, just 160 miles west of Beijing, where vehicles drive in daytime with their headlights on to grope through the miasma.

I’ve touched on this subject before.

There are a number of points not mentioned in the story. As I noted in the post linked above for each additional percent added to GDP China uses proportionally more energy. This is partly because so much of China’s growth is from manufacturing but it’s not only for that reason. Another reason is that China’s use of energy is boosted by market-distorting subsidies which builds in inefficiencies.

The polluted air, water, and soil in China is creating human health problems of unimaginable scale. Tens of millions of people suffer from environmentally-caused health problems. Among these are increased rates of miscarriage and mental retardation.

This is a prime reason that I’m skeptical about Europe and the U. S.’s strategy-by-default of solving their own environmental problems by exporting their manufacturing to China. Plants are, in effect, moving from Europe and the United States (where the problem is handleable) to China (where officials are still largely indifferent to the problem).

Another issue rarely mentioned is the effect that air pollution has on agriculture. In China the amount of sunlight that makes it to the earth has fallen by 3.7 watts per square yard in each of the last five decades. This, along with increased ozone and nitrogen oxides reduces China’s agricultural output. Famine caused by environmental degradation in China could have worldwide impact.

11 comments… add one
  • Energy efficiency.

    Pity there is not more effort selling Americans on the long-term economic gains of energy efficiencies; almost always the wooley Left-Green moralising.

  • In China the key will be convincing the Chinese leadership that order (and, consequently, their own power) will be better preserved by energy efficiency than by the status quo. The Chinese do have the advantage of being able to make dramatic changes very quickly. Potentially. The likelihood of that happening is something else again.

    WRT America I’ve favored (and followed) energy efficiency myself for more than 30 years. And voted for sane candidates who understood such things (rare).

    However, actually reducing energy consumption will be quite difficult for the United States. Distances here are vast and our climate is extremely harsh compared to most of Europe. Chicago, where I live, is quite comparable to Saint Petersburg (which is notorious in Russia for a lousy climate). The temperatures here range from -28C in the winter to 40C in the summer.

    Unfortunately, we continue to subsidize consumption which makes efficiency a hard sell.

  • A couple of other factors in our preference for big cars — more of our cities and communities were built after the advent of the car: L.A., Phoenix, Houston and so on, so we tend to have a more hospitable environment for cars: more parking, wider streets. Even in downtown Chicago it’s easy (not cheap) to find parking.

    And because we started with large cars we’ve developed a sort of automotive arms race: I’ll give up my big car when I don’t have to worry about going head-to-head with a Lincoln Navigator. If I lived in Europe I’d happily move to a smaller car.

    We also have bigger houses because land is relatively plentiful and because, again, most of the US was built post-car, so it’s relatively easy to commute from big house to distant workplace.

    Big houses, great distances, lousy weather everywhere but California, and a system of roads and cities purpose-built for the car, not retrofitted from the era of carriages and hay wagons. The US will be tough.

  • We’ve also been subsidizing highway construction to beat the band, MT. That, in turn, subsidizes urban sprawl, larger houses, longer commutes, and the large car syndrome you note.

    It also creates a built-in constituency for continuing all of the above.

  • However, back to my main point. While getting the U. S., as the largest consumer (and producer) of energy on the planet, to mend its gluttonous ways is important, I don’t believe it’s as important as getting China to alter course. China is the fastest-growing consumer of energy and by far the dirtiest.

    First, as M. Takhallus implies, it would certainly be better to be green from the start. Second, the U. S. and European experience demonstrates that people in free societies will choose a cleaner environment. At least some of the time. We don’t have the same experience with autocracies.

  • Benchmarking mate, benchmarking.

    China is going to make its own choices, and is too big to get its arm twisted. Incentizing probably will work better, and from your own perspective, inducing greater economic efficiency through energy consumption efficiency has a double payoff of long-term increase in competitiveness and setting standards. The Chinese like copying, they’re trying hard to catch up, give them models to copy that show payoffs then.

  • My own view of the Chinese leadership is slightly different. I think that they’re pragmatists par excellence and when it’s more profitable to copy, they copy, and when it’s more profitable to go their own way, that’s what they’ll do, too.

    I think that your point about incentives is an excellent one but for the life of me I can’t think of what the U. S. has to offer in that regard. Chinese goods enter the country largely freely and in the quantities they want to ship. There’s some loosening left to do but not a lot.

    I can’t imagine direct assistance as being politically possible.

    Other alternatives that occur to me are mostly negatives—laying off on the complaints about human rights, taking the pressure off North Korea, and so on (I’d favor both of the the above for different reasons).

    Frankly, if Democrats retain power for any length of time we’re likely to see more emphasis on pressuring China about some human rights violations and agitating for tariffs of one sort or another than the other way around.

  • First, I don’t think we have a different view of the Chinese leadership at all. More profitable, however, for future panning is a matter as much of perception as fact – depending on the time frame of planning.

    Second, in re incentives, there are certainly technology transfer and investment incentives that the US and other Western countries can consider. Access to technology is a major carrot of course.

    This being said, in speaking to incentives, I was thinking of US incentives for domestic market development. Push technology development and above all application by more aggressive incentives to investment in efficient energy use in the productive sector. Models that entice, the Us is genuinely good at develpopments in this area.

  • remember when we had to use the stars to travel across our oceans? The use of a competition was used. It changed the world. There is a small book written about this inventionand its competiton. For different needs of fuel we could have a world wide competion. Pride that it should be a Chinese person. And I have no doubt that they would be right. My fater told me it was very important that as we developed our inventions so should China be brought along. I was upset at all of the Lab knowledge making its way to China. His attittude was from a man who had been 11 during the first world war and 24 during the depression. where folks did get together to help one another across class lines. He then went into ww11 as an old soilder. He gave advice on a quiet way to young captains as their bosses wanted dangerous, not needed bridges blown up or built as they crossed Europe. He then came home and started a real public park for all nationalities and religions. He negociated the sale in his living room at the age of 95. So I’d take his wisdom and use it. Lets have a world wide competion. It is important that all entertain pride, all over the world. Love of curiosity binds the world. The outcomes give us a clean energy inventions.

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