China does the environment

Somewhere in the dunes outside Dunhuang are 5,000 wind turbines. We only saw a few as we flew in, but since 2005 the Chinese government has been pledged $700 billion to develop wind energy. By 2020 it wants 15% of China’s electricity generated from renewable sources.

When I worked on emissions trading policy it was trendy to say that China was opening a new 200MW coal fired power plant every fortnight, dwarfing whatever thermal power developments New Zealand had on the books. But since 2011 China’s wind developments have been growing at a rate of about 750MW per fortnight. If their commitment to renewable energy is half as strong as to high speed rail, I’d say they’ll reach their 15% goal with ease.

This flies in the face of how we tend to perceive of China in climate change debates – the ambivalent mega polluter. My suspicion is this characterisation is all the easier to make because of the same unspoken xenophobia that gets us freaked out about Chinese ownership of New Zealand dairy farms, or flying on a Chinese certified plane. Otherwise I can’t see how the China-as-a-baddie narrative is sustainable when China’s new energy is firing a new level of comfort and development for its citizens that we already enjoy.

The growth of refrigeration in China is a good example.* In the twelve years after 1995 refrigerator ownership in urban households jumped from 7% to 95%. Refrigerated supply infrastructure has developed to match. Refrigeration can improve food safety and give consumers more choice in products. It can also reduce wastage in the supply chain (though US studies suggest wastage just shifts from on the way to the store, to in home where consumers chuck more out.)

Refrigeration comes with massive environmental costs. First, up to 15% of energy worldwide is used on cooling. That’s counting the electricity keeping fridges going in homes, stores and warehouses, and the diesel for the trucks that get them there. Second, fridges use gases that harms the environment to keep things cool. And they leak between 2 – 15% per year.

China’s refrigeration revolution has begun, but it’s not done. As wealth and reticulated electricity spreads, more and more families will forget how to preserve, ferment and pickle and will buy their tofu and chicken feet from Walmart.

China’s a good punching bag on climate change issues. Even its own government admits its environmental future is “not optimistic”. But to baldly chastise it while foraging from our well-stocked fridges is nonsense. We should acknowledge our greater responsibility when our per capita emissions are much higher than the average Chinese. Plus, we should give credit where credit is due: good job on the wind farms, China.

* Info about refrigeration comes from a great article in the New York Times. Unfortunately, because Xinjiang bans access to the NYT, and VPNs, I can’t link to it right now.

One thought on “China does the environment

  1. So very important to be inclusive of the big picture i.e. Australia sold the uranium to Japan knowing the extent of their nuclear power station practise. In these times we cannot afford to be nationcentric. Ecuador is calling the destruction of Yasuni a response to a national debt owed to China. This is number crunching and blame passing at it’s finest. When we view the cost of the same toothpaste in different countries it is obvious that the concept of 1st versus 3rd world countries in terms of commerce is a very dubious precept. Time to balance the real cost in terms of global health and be aware of common misconceptions.

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