China –To Clean Up its Act?

China realizes that it must do something about its high pollution levels. Plans, to become greener, are in the pipeline but are the efforts good enough?
Published: Wed 27 Feb 2013

With China’s capital experiencing the highest-ever pollution levels, it is no surprise that China is looking towards cleaner energy sources. The country’s already-smoggy capital, Beijing, hit record pollution levels earlier this month which were 30-45 times above recommended safety levels. These potent levels forced people to stay indoors and the poor visibility had flights grounded. Smoke from factories and heating plants, as well as fumes from vehicles, combine to pollute the city. Other major cities, particularly in northern China, face similar problems.

Pollution levels in Beijing often exceed 500 on an index that measures particulate matter in the air with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers. A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the World Health Organization recommends a daily level of no more than 20. Beijing mayor Wang Anshun says the government aims to cut the density of major air pollutants by 2% this year and improve the monitoring and public release of information about air pollution. As part of the plan, Wang says the government aims to replace the heating systems of 44,000 old, single-story homes and coal-burning boilers in the city centre with clean energy systems. He adds that there will be a major move towards the use of new energy-saving technologies and products, therefore promoting green, low carbon production and lifestyles.

The country’s government also seeks to cap the growth of electricity consumption at 8% a year from 2010 to 2015, according to Bloomberg. A limit will also be placed on the installation of new coal-fired power plants, while increasing cleaner energy sources such as wind, solar and nuclear.

China’s 12th five-year plan

 According to the country’s 12th five-year plan, consumption is set to double. The plan suggests the following:

  • Energy consumption to be reduced by 16% annually and carbon emissions by 17% (as measured per unit of gross domestic product, from 2010 to 2015)
  • Obtain 11.4% of electricity from non-fossil sources by 2015, up from 8.6% in 2010
  • Reduce coal’s share of generating capacity from 68% in 2010 to less than 65%
  • Solar power to increase by 89.5% a year
  • Wind power to increase 26.4% (Wind-generated electricity in China currently accounts for 2% of the country's total electricity output in 2012)
  • Nuclear power to increase by 29.9%
  • Natural gas capacity to increase by 16.2%

China had a total of 39GW of renewable-energy capacity in 2012, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Hydroelectricity potential

China is also investigating hydroelectricity imports from Russia as it won’t be able to generate enough power from its own sources. Russia is capable of delivering up to 35GW of new capacity in the next 15 years. In the context of China's aim to build hydropower generating capacity of 250GW by 2015, Russia's extra capacity will be crucial.

Experts believe that growth in the hydro industry in the east will initiate desperately needed development in the region.

Russia is already exporting electricity to China. In fact, the exports increased by 26% last year. Experts say that there is potential to increase this figure 20-fold by 2020, writes the Wall Street Journal.

The following steps must be realized in order to close the gap:

  • Hydropower set up costs can be high therefore major new investments are essential
  • The efficient integration of the countries’ electric network to transport the power from Russia

Ambitious Plans 

China has a long way to go to reach its new emission and consumption goals. In 2011, China was responsible for 80% of the growth in global carbon emissions and according to the World Resources Institute, China and India combined, will build 76% of the nearly 2000 coal-fired power plants now under development worldwide. While other countries (such as the US) show a marked improvement in lowering their emission levels, China continues to steam ahead. China’s emissions have increased precipitously, from 7 billion MT (in 2008), to 8.2 billion MT (in 2010) and further to 9.7 billion MT (in 2011).

Can China "pull the reins" on a racing horse? Renewable Energy World suggests that China “pause” to allow sustainability to catch up with the magnitude of the Chinese economy. This may be unlikely as China forges ahead economically.

Engerati Analysis

Despite the country’s plans to become green, the alarming pollution levels tell a different story. China will need to up its game plan and emerge quickly from its ‘green’ goal-attaining sluggishness if it is serious about breathing cleaner air. The country desperately needs new low-cost clean energy technologies which can be quickly implemented and will compete with coal-fired power plants. Government will need to encourage private investment for research in to new technology as traditional forms of renewable energy technology probably won’t achieve the quick-fix that China is looking for.


Bloomberg-China to Cap Electricity Growth at 8% Through 2015

Huffington Post-Beijing’s Air Pollution Steps Get Poor Reception Among Some in China’s Capital [Reuters]

Morning Whistle-Wind power turns China’s 3rd largest energy resource

Renewable Energy World-China Needs A ‘Game Changing’ Renewable Energy Technology

The Wall Street Journal-The Russian Solution for China’s Power Market