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China and the environment: The U.S. could learn a lot from China

By Roberta
[Monday, October 29, 2007]

When I embarked upon my recent trip to China, I was ready for the worst in terms of pollution. I had been told that tap water was not only not potable, but also not suitable for bathing because it was so murky that nobody would want to bathe in it. (Showers were considered to be ok). I guess they figured the impurities would just roll off. We were told to take dust masks with us so that we could breathe outside. I expected the hotel rooms to be lacking in environmentally friendly technology.

How surprised I was when I walked into my hotel room in Beijing! Lights, TV and all other electronic systems were operable only when the hotel key card was inserted into a slot provided on the wall just inside the hotel room door. When one left the hotel room and removed their key card, all of the electrically operated gadgets in the room would go dead. No energy was wasted when nobody is present in the room. A remote control center next to the bed allowed occupants to operate any light, television, etc. in the hotel room without getting up.

I got out my water-purifying device and filled it with water from the tap. Wow! It wasn't murky (not that I would have drunk it, but at least it looked ok). I did use it to brush my teeth, as we were told it was safe to do so. Surprisingly, Beijing air didn't seem any more polluted that one of the major cities in USA, and I found no reason to don a dust mask. What I did notice was that the streets were clean. They had plenty of manpower to pick up litter and keep the streets immaculate. Street cleaners consisted of people with brooms and huge dustpans cleaning up the solid debris, and one individual on a bicycle with a tank of water on the back. Another man walked along behind directing the hose and scrubbing the roads. There was no wasted water, and no need for fossil fuel to propel the vehicle. Needless to say, there was not much of an obesity problem in Beijing.

The vast majority of people traveled to work on bicycles. Some used motorbikes, and a small percent of Chinese drove automobiles. Because of the density of people living in Chinese cities, the roads are packed with cars even though most people don't drive. If the percent of Americans riding bikes or motor scooters to work equaled that of most China cities, America wouldn't have much of a carbon emissions problem. Shanghai has a novel way of encouraging people to ride bikes or take public transportation. Cars are readily available for purchase. The only problem is that it costs more to register a car than it does to purchase one. License plates have codes that indicate what city the vehicle is registered in. If an individual tries registering a vehicle in another city to avoid paying the high registration fee, they are out of luck. According to our Chinese tour guide, it is illegal to drive a vehicle that is not registered in Shanghai on shanghai highways during the day on weekdays.

Shanghai also boasts the fastest train in the world, the Maglev, which can reach speeds of 300km/hr in 2 minutes flat, and cruise at 500km/hr. The Maglev uses magnetic levitation by traveling on a magnetic field generated by both the train and the rails. It is reported to be "pollution free," though there is some concern about "magnetic pollution." Since the entire length of the present run from Pudong Airport to down town Shanghai is only 30km, the train can never reach maximum speed before it has to slow down. The entire trip takes about 10 – 15 minutes. Travel during rush hour from the Pudong Airport to Shanghai would take 1 ½ or more, as I found out when our plane arrived at Pudong Airport during rush hour; so who wouldn't choose to take the Maglev rather than drive?

The whole idea is to make other means of transportation so convenient and travel by private vehicle so expensive and inconvenient that people will use alternatives. Public transportation is readily accessible and quite convenient, even for tourists who do not speak Chinese.

One difference was immediately obvious when comparing new apartments in USA and new apartments in China. Almost all new structures had solar panels on the roof. According to Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group based in Washington D.C., 60% of the solar capacity installed in the world (30 million households) are found in China (2). Solar panels are being installed throughout Beijing, including 1,100 Solar panels on the Beijing's National Indoor Stadium, ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics (1, 3). China takes solar power back to the basics. Even in the cities there were typically clothes hanging on lines outside the windows and balconies of every apartment – again, no need for pollution producing energy.

Not everybody in China lives in apartments. I saw many housing developments in the suburbs of Shanghai. While there were many beautiful flowering shrubs and vines growing along fences and walls, there weren't huge weed-free lawns. Instead, between these houses were patches of corn, mounds of melons, apple, pear and pomegranate trees; and behind the homes, there were rice paddies and tethered goats grazing between the paddies. Chicken coops were more common in the yards than were garages. Basically, no land was wasted. Zoning ordinances in the USA would usually prohibit such land use in typical housing developments.

When we flew north from Beijing on our way back over the pole to JFK airport, I was thrilled to see wind-farms sitting on hills above little cities and towns. In checking, I discovered that at the end of 2005 China had 59 in-grid wind-farms with a total of 1,854 wind turbine generators. China ranked 10th in the world with 1,266 megawatt in-grid wind power installed capacity (6). In addition, by the end of 2004 China had produced 200,000 off-grid wind turbine generators (usually rural single family generators), and was ranked number one in the world (6).

China is sitting at a crossroads in terms of energy sources. They are making tremendous strides into alternative energy sources. But let's look at their present predicament a little closer. At the present time 70% of china's energy comes from coal (8). It is a country rich in coal, and with a rapidly growing economy, the need for coal will likely continue. The energy produced by 3 Gorges Dam is predicted to reduce the China's dependence on coal, but even the Dam Project has the environmental community wondering and worrying. At the same time, the China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation's (Sinopec) Xinjiang Oil Field will likely boost China's oil reserves to 1 billion tons by 2010 (9). So, it appears that fossil fuel will not be making an exit from China any time soon.

With a population of 1.3 billion people, China has more than 4 times the population of the USA. 20% of the world's population lives in China, but China consumes only 10% of the world's energy and 4% of the world's oil (6, 10, 11). On the contrary, USA is the home to just 5% of the world population and consumes 23% of the world's energy and 25% of the world's oil (10,11, 13). Remember also that China is a developing industrial power. Americans depend upon China to manufacture a huge amount of products we use every day. Why? Because China can make the products cheaper! So, much of their pollution and energy use goes to products sold to Americans and not to the Chinese, who are living within a small environmental footprint.

China has suffered growing pains as it attempts to meet the criteria of the Kyoto Protocol (of which China is a member). Realizing that the vegetation in cities such as Shanghai were disappearing at an alarming rate, they decided to move many trees from other areas of China and plant them in cities. A major undertaking, referred to as the "Great Green Wall," involves planting a shelterbelt of trees 4,480km (2,800 mile) long across northwestern China skirting the Gobi Desert (13). This is a 75 year project which started in 2000 and is now well underway. Initially they moved many large trees in order to hasten the development of the wall of trees that is intended to block the desert sands from Beijing and other cities. They also moved trees into Shanghai. Indeed, it did work. The trees look as if they have always been there. A problem that they failed to consider, however, was how many trees they could remove from a given area without affecting the ecology of that ecosystem. According to our tour guide, they are now conducting reforestation in some areas from which too many trees had been taken.

Does China have environmental problems? Undoubtedly. When I was in Shanghai, the air pollution was much worse than it was in Beijing. Why? Most likely it is because there were many more vehicles on the road. The vehicle ownership in China is 10 vehicles/1000 (7). While in the USA there are 800 vehicles/1000 people (7). Imagine if China had the same ratio of automobiles/person as is common in the USA. China recognizes their problems and has set their benchmark very high. It is obvious everywhere one travels in China. Billboards everywhere have the same message, "We must protect the environment."

China has a long way to go, but their commitments are quite evident in their achievements to date. Before the USA is too critical of China, they should look at their own record. For the first time China is the world's #1 producer of CO2 emissions at a rate of 6.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2006 of carbon/year or 4.9 metric tons per capita. The USA comes in #2 with 5.8 billion metric tons of carbon of carbon or 19 metric tons per capita in 2006. Imagine how much carbon emissions China would have if they lived the 2007 American Dream and wasted energy as Americans do.


  1. Chi-Chu Tschang; China Aims to Clean Up in Solar Power; Businessweek; April 11, 2007; Last accessed 10/24/07 http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/apr2007/gb20070411_628994.htm
  2. Areddy, James T.; Heat for the tubs of China; Wall Street Journal; Updated: 2006-03-31; Last accessed 10/24/07 http://online.wsj.com/public/article/0,,SB114374984648312629- A0F_dVhGloFXtoF8doVDS_kg_0k_20060406,00.html?mod=regionallinks
  3. Editor; Shanghai to Install Solar Panels on Building Roofs; Shanghai Daily September 15, 2005; Last accessed 10/24/07; http://russian.china.org.cn/english/environment/142288.htm
  4. Doe, Charlie /Beijing Bergey WindPower; Renewable Energy in China: Development of the Geothermal Heat Pump Market in China; NREL International Programs; 2004; Last accessed 10/24/07; www.nrel.gov/international
  5. Mayfield, James; commercial officer, US Commercial Service, heads the Construction, Environmental, and Marine Technologies Team, US Consulate General, Shanghai; Top 10 Questions on Environmental Projects: Answers to the most frequently asked questions about China's environmental sector; China Business Review; 3/11/02; Last Accessed 10/25/07; http://www.chinabusinessreview.com/public/0311/02.html
  6. Feller, Gordon; China's Wind Power: The World's Most Populous Country Harnesses Wind to Help Power Burgeoning Economy; EcoWorld; 7/15/06; Last Accessed 10/25/07; http://www.ecoworld.com/Home/articles2.cfm?tid=390
  7. Corning Environmental Technologies; China - on the fast track to Lowering Emissions; Emissions Control Technology Magazine; 1/25/2004; Last Accessed 10/16/07; http://www.corning.com/environmentaltechnologies/auto-emissions-magazine/ archive-edition/2004-1/article1.aspx
  8. Lim, Louisa; China's Coal-Fueled Boom Has Costs; National Public Radio – Morning Edition; 5/2/07; Last Accessed 10/26/07; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9947668
  9. Wang yu; Xinjiang provides Succor to Sinopec; China Daily; Vol 27 no. 8571 October 12 Page 1
  10. Wingfield-Hayes, Rupert, BBC correspondent, Beijing; Satisfying China's demand for energy; BBC News; 2/16/2006; Last Accessed 10/26/07; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4716528.stm
  11. NationMaster; from CIA The World Factbook; Updated 10/18/2007; Last Accessed 10/16/07 http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/ ene_oil_con-energy-oil-consumption
  12. Population and Energy Consumption; World Population Balancev; (Data courtesy of BP, "Statistical Review of World Energy 2005;" and United Nations, "World Population Prospects: 2004 Revision"); Last Accessed 10/26/07 http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/pop/energy/
  13. China's Great Green Wall; BBC News; 3/3/2001; Last Accessed 10/26/07; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/ monitoring/media_reports/1199218.stm


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Ben said...

The greatest enemy of the environment is materialism. Thankfully, China is conducive to the concept of conservation as patriotism, whereas here in the States such is impossible. In China you can find nationalistic teenagers that forswear cars for the national good. Not everyone, but any bit helps. Here, one would be two inches from being labelled as a crackhead for such notions.

Anonymous said...

re Ben's consumerism:

We currently live a world of fractional banking and fiat money. Current financial conditions around the world are still basically easy, and with low barriers of access. The net result is that (to paraphrase Churchill, 1940) "Never was so much owed by so many to so few".

The indebtedness and consumerism card played by the bankers of this world is probably very well summed up by

Visa to launch 'wave and pay' cards in UK (http://www.silicon.com/financialservices/0,3800010322,39164313,00.htm),

"the aim is for a cashless Olympic Games in London in 2012."

There is good psychological understanding at work in that Visa system: people are more carefree with how much they spend when they do not finger-feel the coin passing. In fact studies show people spend between 15-30% more then they would IF they had cash in their hand. The idea of convenience and efficiency is simple but very effective smokescreen and the great unwashed swallow it hook' n sinker whole. The crowd is being opiated by the bankers' cashless Pablum of convenience and perception of security of their "money".

My suggestion: in order to help achieve a little less consuming society, people will have to get back to carrying and paying with physical coin and put some distance between those electronic debit cards where the notions of numbers are ephemeral, but consequences serious and long lasting.

I could suggest many paths towards that, but this missive is long enough so I ll keep it to just a few:

1) counter any and all legislation making possession of cash as undesirable (and in fact attracting of gov'tal scrutiny into one's life)

1a) counter bankers' propaganda suggestions that paying with cash will incur handling fees and debit cards are the wave of the future)

2) work towards the re-introduction of elementary school classroom "make believe practical shopping and banking" style instruction of using the Abacus.

Now I am not optimistic that the momentum has a resonable chance of getting stopped, much less getting reversed. What will probably have to happen is for society to hit a rock-bottom suffering of some sorts in which current models will simply have no practical use and will simply disappear in the embers of the rejuventing destruction fire and for the survivors to evolve their own new cyclical methods of social interaction.


engineering said...

It is always fascinating to read about China.
From my personal experience it is apparent to me that China is concerned about pollution and has the political will to do its best in addressing it. However, the article appears to romanticize China and perhaps ignore some of its realities.
Note that China has in fact surpassed the US in CO2 generation (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7347638.stm).
Also, if not mistaken, although bicycle riding is encouraged in Beijing it is discouraged in other cities. In addition urban planning is committing the same errors of the west, developing massive roadway networks that eventually generate traffic congestion.
The mag lev is superb and Chinese cities intend to follow the Hong Kong lesson where most commuters use public transit but this has not proven to be a solution to traffic congestion - you can experience massive traffic congestion in HK as well. Also from articles I gather that the Chinese government was encouraging the use of automobiles.
Interestingly, as the standard of living increases more and more Chinese will mimic America's consumerism. That will be a challenge of significant impacts.
I enjoy reading the article but does not provide proper contrasts but a superficial observation on modern China. Nevertheless, China, unlike other countries, has the potential to set future standards at many levels including energy consumption.
By the way, although I did see the energy efficient hotel rooms, I also walked into a large super market where an entire section although open was chilled to maintain the frozen goods, not very energy efficient :)
Gonzalo Camacho (Houston, Texas)

Anonymous said...

Visit Hangzhou (180 km from Shanghai) and try one of the ten thousand free bicycles provided by the municipal government! Just show your passport, you can get orange colored, almost new bick from any major bus station or major park in the city for free (first hour is free, and second hour is 1 yuan and third 2 yuan). you can return it after use to any other return station any where in the city. It is operated through a computerized modern system. just one example to see how China is serious about improving her environment!

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