Does China Have A Green Future?

China GreenPhoto: Greg Girard/National GeographicScenery for the industrial age, the cooling towers at the Xinglongzhuang power station mark one of China’s first efforts to generate electricity from recycled coal-mining waste. Building an average of one coal-fired plant a week, China is outfitting many with the latest pollution-cutting technology.

China is one of the fastest growing nations on earth. It also has the biggest and fastest growing carbon footprint, which is not expected to peak until 2030. Yet there is another side to China and the environment, one that shows a country trying to get ahead with clean energy for its people, according to June 2011’s National Geographic.

China GreenPhoto: Greg Girard/National GeographicUnder a bright sky near Shizuishan, a technician makes the rounds of China’s first large-scale solar farm. Connected to the grid in 2009, the plant provides ten megawatts of electricity, enough for 10,000 homes. Two-thirds of China’s vast land is ideal for solar power.

China has overtaken the United States in greenhouse gas emissions but at the same time, it is the world’s largest investor in solar and clean energy. In the city of Rizhao, 95% of all buildings are solar heated. No U.S. city comes close, except Honolulu, which is in the early double digits.

China GreenPhoto: Greg Girard/National GeographicWhat doesn’t go up in smoke ends up in a landfill as a truck dumps a load of ash from a coal-fired power plant visible on the horizon in Shizuishan. A 2010 Greenpeace report cites toxic coal ash as China’s largest source of solid industrial waste, dispersed by wind and rain into the environment.

“We once thought of China as the ‘yellow peril’ and then the ‘red menace.’ Now the colors are black and green. An epic race is on, and if you knew how the race would come out — if you knew whether or how fast China could wean itself off coal and tap the sun and wind — then you’d have the single most important data point of our century. The outcome of that race will determine how bad global warming is going to get. And right now the answer is still up in the air,” says Bill McKibbon of National Geographic.

China GreenPhoto: Greg Girard/National GeographicInside Beijing’s first American-style mall, one of the largest anywhere, more than 500 shops vie for customers. Unleashed demand for must-have items like cars and air conditioners is turning China into the world’s biggest energy consumer.

Coal is at the center of a vicious circle in China. The richer the country gets, the more it needs to power all the appliances and goodies that come with wealth and the need for electricity. This of course produces more carbon dioxide to warm the planet. China has a big goal in reducing carbon emissions, but at the same time, it has to grow its economy by 8% a year to keep up with its growing population.

China GreenPhoto: Greg Girard/National GeographicA coal yard in northern China comes with a Buddha. Coal reserves could run low in a few decades, making green energy in China a must.

However, more and more people are starting to pick up the environmental mantle, protesting at mines, sitting on someone’s stoop if they are seen littering and in ways small and large making a difference.

It is to the government’s advantage to reduce its environmental abuses. An estimated 25% of its total GDP is lost due to these abuses. Companies like Himin Solar are needed to bring down this number. Huang Ming, the owner, talks about the 160 million square feet of solar hot water heaters they have installed: “That means 60 million families, maybe 250 million people altogether — almost the population of the United States.”

China GreenPhoto: Greg Girard/National GeographicAn instant suburb of high-rises shoots up on the outskirts of the wealthy coal-mining city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia. The feverish growth of urban areas, with their energy-hungry buildings and appliances, has contributed to a tripling of China’s power demand since 2000.

Ultimately, though, China’s growth is surpassing its ability to cut down carbon emissions. It is ideally suited to use more green technology infrastructure because it is a growing economy; but the growth means it needs steel and other items for building that are powered by coal. With no peak seen before 2030, all its clean energy initiatives may be too late to do any good when it comes to global warming.

Read more about whether China can go green in the June 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands May 31.

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