China in an energy
By Jasper Becker
Part 1: The death of China's rivers
Part 2: Peasants bear the brunt of energy
China now ranks second globally
to the United States in installed electricity capacity
(338 gigawatts in 2000) but its use of electricity is
just 38 percent of the world's average. If by 2050 its
population peaks at 1.6 billion and per capita energy
use reaches the world average, it will be adding the
generating capacity of Canada every four years. China
currently burns more than a billion tonnes of coal a
year to produce 75 percent of its energy. Even the most
optimistic assumptions foresee coal consumption growing
by about 5 percent a year.
The country has
unveiled ambitious plans to cut its reliance on coal to
about 55 percent of its energy needs. By 2030 coal is
expected to provide 62 percent, oil 18 percent, natural
gas 8 percent, hydropower 9 percent, and nuclear power 3
percent of China's energy consumption. By 2050, Chinese
planners believe coal consumption should be down to 35
percent of consumption, with oil and natural gas
accounting for 40-50 percent and primary energy sources
such as nuclear, hydro, solar and wind power accounting
for 15-20 percent.
To attain that hydropower
goal, and to deliver water to parts of China that are
now suffering badly from the effects of centuries of
mismanagement of the environment, the country has
embarked on the biggest water-diversion plan in history.
On August 14, Premier Wen Jiabao announced that work on
the eastern and central canals of a south-north
water-diversion project are to start this year. These
canals would carry water from the Three Gorges Dam
hundreds of kilometers away. One of the most important
parts of the project is reducing water pollution in
northern China, bringing water from the south to what is
now a virtual desert. If the project fails, China might
well have to move its capital from Beijing, which sits
in the middle of a desert.
Wen was quoted by the
official Xinhua News Agency as saying that plans are
being made to protect the water from pollution along the
diversion. Eight projects are soon to be initiated,
including a canal from Shijiazhuang in Hebei province to
Tuancheng Lake in Beijing, the reinforcement of the dam
of Danjiangkou Reservoir, a tunnel under the Yellow
River, which is now dry 1,000km from its mouth, and
construction of sewage-treatment plants in cities along
the eastern canal.
Wen said that by 2008, 295
water-pollution control projects will have been built
along the east canal, one of three south-to-north
water-diversion canals running about 1,300km across the
eastern, middle and western parts of the country.
The State Environmental Protection
Administration (SEPA) acknowledged that water pollution
along the east canal is still worrisome. All seven spots
that are monitored by SEPA were reported to be polluted
in varying degrees. New rules to charge enterprises and
residents for disposing of wastewater will also be
adopted. On the east canal alone, 24 billion yuan
(US$2.9 billion) will be invested in reducing pollution
and protecting the environment, one-third of the budget
for the canal.
water-diversion project formally started last December
and aims to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water
from the Yangtze to the north, Wen said. Emergency water
supply to Beijing, Tianjin and north Hebei province will
be a priority of the project, he said.
thus choosing between environmental hazard in its waters
and environmental hazard in its air. The Worldwatch
Institute, an international environmental watchdog,
estimates that China is poised to overtake the United
States as the world's largest source of air pollution
within 10 years. Less than 20 percent of the 1.4 billion
tonnes of coal that China mined in 1996 (when coal
output peaked) was washed, so that 23.7 million tonnes
of sulfur dioxide was discharged into the air that year.
In 1999, only a third of China's 338 monitored
cities were in compliance with the nation's
ambient-air-quality criteria - which are far lower than
international standards. Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi
province, where a quarter of the country's coal is
mined, has the worst air-pollution record of any city in
the world, with particulate concentrations often seven
times World Health Organization (WHO) standards.
A World Bank report estimates that air pollution
costs the Chinese economy $25 billion a year in health
expenditure and lost labor productivity alone. As many
as 700,000 premature deaths per year are attributed just
to indoor air pollution from burning coal for heating
and cooking. Throughout China, respiratory diseases are
blamed for a quarter of all early deaths, a figure that
has increased by nearly 25 percent over the past decade.
Then there are the 10,000 miners who lose their lives
each year, largely from coal-face accidents.
Moreover, acid rain affects 40 percent of China.
In Chongqing, which burns 15 million tonnes of coal each
year, acid rain is so severe that bus signs have to be
changed every few years. The municipal government says
acid rain costs 1.6 billion yuan a year.
this story, anything that China does to cut its reliance
on coal is to be welcomed. Beijing plans to ban
production of coal containing more than 3 percent sulfur
by the end of 2005. Moreover, two transcontinental gas
pipelines and half a dozen smaller ones are being built
that would supply the big cities with clean energy for
heating and cooking. In many cities such as Beijing and
Taiyuan, people are already installing new gas-fired
boilers to replace coal-fired ones.
also promising to clean up its smokestacks and halve
sulfur-dioxide emissions by 2010. The continuing
reliance on old and inefficient industrial technology
means that China must burn 50 million tonnes of coal
more than a developed country for the same amount of
energy. Much of the bill of $46 billion is being footed
by Japan, which suffers from Shanxi air pollution.
Hitachi is even providing smokestack scrubbers to Shanxi
plants. But despite these attempts to clean it up and
reduce dependence on it, coal will remain central to
China's energy consumption. By 2030 oil is scheduled to
supply 18 percent of China's needs - making it as
important a consumer of Middle Eastern oil as Japan or
the United States - yet coal consumption will remain the
most pressing issue. By 2020, China's coal-fired
generating plants will alone be emitting each 10.2
million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 152,000 tonnes of
sulfur dioxide and nearly 500,000 tonnes of dust and fly
So, on the face of it, the Three Gorges Dam
and all the other hydropower schemes offer big benefits,
which contribute 20 percent of China's electricity
consumption from non-polluting energy that is vastly
preferable to coal. Even so, the giant dams and
reservoirs China is building at such a furious rate
remain a poor investment and should be discouraged,
because their construction entails big hidden human and
The past 50 years of water
conservancy has been achieved at a gigantic cost in
human suffering, which is little known even within
China. By 1982 China had forcibly evicted 10.2 million
people to make way for 70,000 dams and 80,000
reservoirs; even this may be an underestimate. In the
past 20 years, an additional 3 million people have
moved, bringing the total to 13 million.
Resettlement for dam building is, of course,
only one part of a bigger story of forced movement. In
the Mao Zedong era, 170 million people were shifted
around the country. Soldiers, prisoners, Red Guards or
miners were sent into hitherto remote areas such as the
forests of Yunnan or the mountains and valleys of former
Manchuria. More than 20 million "educated youth" were
sent from the cities into the countryside. Another 16
million were sent into the interior to build Mao's
"Third Line", a military-industrial complex scattered in
remote locations to enable his regime to survive a
Soviet nuclear attack and invasion.
45 million people have been moved to make way for all
kinds of infrastructure projects. One consequence of
these population movements is a form of colonization.
Areas that were once the domain of hunters and herdsmen
have been transformed into densely occupied settlements.
The Sanjiang Plain in Heilongjiang province, for
instance, in the far north was drained to create
farmland that now supports 8 million people.
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