Discovery Guides Areas


China and the Path to Environmental Sustainability
(Released August 2007)

  by Ethan Goffman  


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Despite greater efficiency, energy consumption has zoomed in China, by "70 percent between 2000 and 2005" (World Bank xi). All possible energy sources have been increasing to keep up with the demand.

Coal, an energy source straight out of 19th century England, provides over two thirds of China's energy. Indeed, China is the world's "largest consumer of coal (1,531 Mt [metric tons] in 2003), accounting for approximately one third of the world's total annual consumption. More than half of China's coal is used to generate over three quarters of the national electricity supply" (Creedy et al, 1). Still a relatively poor country, yet with abundant coal reserves, the choice of coal seems obvious in raw economic terms. Yet the cost is heavy in emissions of sulfur and soot, causing skyrocketing rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases. New technology might be expected to lower the reliance on coal, but the economy is growing so quickly that it is difficult for new efficiencies to fully offset this growth. Coal consumption, therefore, "is estimated to be rising at more than 10 percent per year" (Economy, 102).

eerie painting of factory and flames
Like China, England in the Industrial Revolution depended upon coal
Coalbrookdale at night, 1801, Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg the Younger

Greater efficiency in mining coal, however, is possible, for instance in replacing small, poorly run mines with large ones operating under tightly controlled rules (Creedy et al, 25). Indeed, China is now planning to "call a halt to building new coal-fire power plants below 300,000 kilowatts" (Interfax Ban). The latest trends in environmental economics are also being implemented on an experimental basis: "tradable SO2 emissions projects-are particularly noteworthy because they have brought together Chinese government agencies with domestic and international research institutes and NGOs to address China's acid rain problems" (Zusman & Turner, 131). This illustrates China's increasing acceptance of international environmental policies.

Oil, another key global energy source, may be limited in its future expansion in China, as global demand accelerates. Already, costs are rising as China has "gone from near self-sufficiency in the mid-1990s to overtake Japan as the world's second largest oil importer-3.2 million barrels a day in 2004" (Flavin & Gardner, 10). As China uses more automobiles its oil imports will undoubtedly go up. While peak oil may be some years off, China will want to limit its dependence on an unpredictable energy source often located in unstable foreign countries.

aerial view of massive dam
Not too gorgeous: An aerial view of the Three Gorges Dam, July 2003
Hydropower, like coal, is an energy source abundant within China, and a renewable one, but one with large social and environmental costs. Dams, by their very nature, change the surrounding hydrology and environmental structure. The dispute over dams is typified by controversy over the enormous Three Gorges Dam Project, to be completed by 2009: "the installed hydroelectric capacity from the project is expected to be 18,200 MW [megawatts], or approximately 24 percent of the current total hydroelectric capacity in all of China" (Cann et al, 21). The project has displaced some one million people, spurring protest. The environmental impact is also enormous: "problems that result from dams include wildlife habitat destruction and division, silting of waterways, increased emission of methane (a greenhouse gas), and the leaching of toxic heavy metals from the soil" (Cann et al, 21). However, in a country with an ever-increasing demand for energy, and with a need to balance cost against impact, the Chinese government feels that there is no choice, "that the dam is needed to provide electricity, claiming that it will replace ten large coal-fired power stations that otherwise would burn fifty million tons of coal, or the energy equivalent of twenty-six nuclear plants" (Wang & Lee, 188).

A relatively clean option is natural gas, which is expected to see "a significant increase in its share in China's energy mix, from 3 percent in 2001 to 8 percent in 2025" (Wang & Lei, 191). Nuclear energy currently accounts for some 1% of China's energy use, a number that is unlikely to increase much due to the high start-up costs of new nuclear plants.

Finally we come to renewable energies other than hydroelectric. Methods under examination "include expanding wind power on a large scale and applying solar, geothermal, biomass and tidal power in niche applications" (Zhu, 25). Wind power is growing particularly rapidly, and, according to one source, in 2005 China and Germany were the two top investors in non-hydropower renewable energy (Interfax China & Germany). The goals are quite ambitious: "China aims to have renewables account for 10 percent of the country's primary energy consumption by 2010 and 16 percent by 2020" (Interfax World Bank).

windmills in the sun
A mighty wind: Dan Nan wind farm in Nan'ao, China

Still, the impact so far has been negligible; in 2001 nonhydro renewables amounted to only "0.02 percent of China's energy mix" (Wang & Lei, 189). Like nuclear power, solar and wind power have a high start-up cost. On a large scale, wind is the most viable and least costly of these, and China has recently cut the value-added tax on wind power in half. Still, "wind power in China is approximately twice the cost of electricity from coal" (Cann et al, 21). Nevertheless, with improving technology and economy of scale this price gap is likely to shrink.

Conservation is probably China's best hope for reducing unsustainable energy use, as it is for the rest of the world. According to Wang and Li, "there is a huge potential in China for energy efficiency. Based on World Bank estimates, 10 percent of total Chinese industrial energy demand can be met through energy efficiency efforts by 2010" (190). With a long-term program of energy conservation that included cleaner production, automobile fuel standards, public transportation and smart growth, and green buildings, potential gains would be much greater.

A crucial method of avoiding the harmful effects of coal, oil, and some other sources is simply to use less energy, as well as to use less hazardous forms of energy. China is moving in this direction through a strategy known as cleaner production (CP) , which reduces both energy consumption and hazardous wastes (Millison, 201). The benefits of this approach, and of improved energy efficiency in general, became obvious at the end of the 20th century, as China turned into a net energy importer (Millison, 203). Overall, China still has an enormous way to go; "there is huge promise for suppressing growth in energy consumption by introducing new energy technologies, adjusting the current energy structure, and implementing new energy conservation and environmental protection policies" (Zhu, 13).

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