Tag Archives: China

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China's Hydropower

Climate Change Evaporates Part of China’s Hydropower: Scientific American.

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WATER FALL: Unusually low water levels in many Chinese rivers has contributed to a big drop in hydropower production. Image: Tomasz Dunn/Flickr

SHANGHAI — China has set ambitious goals for itself to develop hydropower to help mitigate the risks of climate change, but increasing extreme weather events likely rooted in climate change are now sabotaging the goals’ foundations.

The latest blow came in September, when many major rivers across China ran into an unusual shrinkage, with less than 20 percent water remaining at some stretches. As a result, the nation’s hydroelectric generation dropped by almost a quarter compared with last year. There has been an ever-widening decrease in power each month since July, according to a recent government statement.

As water stocks in key hydro stations decline, the regular dry season is approaching. The resulting stress on hydroelectric generation will last into next year, the statement said.

The Chinese government has yet to explain why the water flows slumped. But experts blamed it on climate change, warning of more future droughts in areas traditionally blessed with water.

If this expectation comes true, it will hamper China’s hydropower sector, which contributes most of the country’s carbon-free electricity. It will also threaten a national strategy in transmitting electricity from resource-rich western China to feed the country’s power-hungry manufacturing sector, most of which is in the east.

For Guangdong province, located on China’s east coast, this threat has already turned into a daily reality. Since its western neighbors this year failed to send as much electricity as usual, the manufacturing hub, with a capacity to produce more than half of the world’s desktops and toys, is forced to conserve electricity.

Turbines left high and dry
China Southern Power Grid, the region’s electricity distributor, attributed the energy shortage partly to the evaporation of hydropower.

As of July, on average, not even half of its installed hydropower capacity found water to turn turbines, the company’s statistics show. And several major hydro stations, built as part of the west-to-east electricity transmission plan, failed to do their jobs.

Goupitan, the largest hydroelectric generator in Guizhou province, reportedly produced only 10 percent of its normal output per day, due to shrinking water flows. And in another hydro station called Longtan, located in the Guangxi region, this year’s missing rain dropped its reservoir’s water level to a point dozens of meters lower than previous years.

“This will definitely negatively affect our hydroelectric production from now to next summer,” said Li Yanguang, who is in charge of public relations in the power station. Asked whether next summer — a regular rainy season — could make the situation better, Li answered in a cautious tone.

“This totally depends on weather,” he said. “We can’t predict that.”

Hydro growth plan sticks despite falling power output
But Lin Boqiang, one of China’s leading energy experts, is confident that the nation’s hydroelectric generation may just go in one direction: getting worse.

“If climate change caused this year’s water flow decreases, which I think it did, and then its impact [on rivers] will be a long term. It will take a toll on China’s hydroelectric output, and also push up the cost of using it,” explained Lin, who directs the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University.

But still, from Lin’s point of view, such setbacks can’t compete with the Chinese desire for tapping more water power. China, already the world’s largest hydropower user, plans to add another 120 gigawatts by 2015 — a crucial step toward greening 15 percent of its power mix by the end of the decade.

Yang Fuqiang, a senior climate and energy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that China’s hydropower plan will stand, though not primarily for energy supply concerns.

Although a climate-resilient approach is factored into the designs of hydro projects, China is still likely to suffer from hydroelectric output decline, says Yang. But the nation can seek more clean energy from the sun or wind, which won’t be affected by climate change, and get the electricity generated elsewhere via a smart grid, he said, referring to an advanced transmission infrastructure China has been building.

So what’s the point of keeping hydro?

“In the future, the importance of hydro projects won’t be on power generation, but on water management,” Yang explained. “It helps control floods, ensure ships transportation and reserve water — a function that [water-scarce] China needs badly.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

Construction drives China's 'carbonizing dragon'

A ‘carbonizing dragon’: Construction drives China’s growing CO2 emissions.

ScienceDaily (Oct. 4, 2011) — Constructing buildings, power-plants and roads has driven a substantial increase in China’s carbon dioxide emission growth, according to a new study involving the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Fast growing capital investments in infrastructure projects led to the expansion of the construction industry and its energy and CO2 intensive supply chain, such as steel and cement production. As a result of this transformation of China’s economy, more and more CO2 was released per unit of gross domestic product — a reversion of a long-term trend.

Recently China became the world’s largest consumer of energy and emitter of CO2, overtaking the US. Previously the country’s greenhouse gas emissions growth was driven by rising consumption and exports. Today this growth is offset by emission savings from efficiency increases, but these savings are being hindered by the building of infrastructure — which is important as it dictates tomorrow’s emissions, the international team of researchers concludes.

The study, entitled “A ‘Carbonizing Dragon’: China’s fast growing CO2 emissions revisited”, is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. It emphasizes that putting a low carbon infrastructure in place in China as well as other emerging and developing economies from the beginning is a key global challenge to avoid ‘carbon lock-in’ — where a country could be stuck on a path of high emissions — which would have a significant and persistent impact on future emissions.

“The carbon intensive nature of capital investment in heavy industry, large infrastructure building projects, and energy production, might be hard to avoid as China tries to instigate a virtuous cycle of high rates of investment and economic growth,” explained Giovanni Baiocchi, from Norwich Business School at UEA and the lead UK author of the study.

“The high levels of CO2 emissions from capital investment might only be temporary as, with economic development, investment moves into more high-tech and greener technologies,” added Dr Baiocchi, a senior lecturer in business and climate change. “However, it is crucial that China now invests in the right kind of infrastructure to limit the growth of CO2 emissions that causes global warming. The type of infrastructure put in place today will also largely determine future mitigation costs.”

The study’s lead author Jan Minx, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the Technical University of Berlin, said: “Up to 2002 there has been a race between consumption growth and efficiency gains. However, the recent rise in emissions is completely due to the massive structural change of China’s economy. Emissions grow faster and faster, because CO2 intensive sectors linked to the building of infrastructure have become more and more dominant. China has developed into a ‘carbonizing dragon’.”

The researchers conducted a ‘structural decomposition’ analysis of input-output data for 1992 to 2007 — the most recent official data available — which allowed them to assign changes in emission over time to a set of drivers such as consumption growth, efficiency gains or structural change.

They found that emissions almost tripled between 1992 and 2007, growing by about four billion tonnes, with 70% of this growth happening between 2002 and 2007. The average annual CO2 emission growth alone in this period was similar in size to the total CO2 emissions in the UK. While exports showed the fastest CO2 emission growth at one point, capital investments and the construction industry then overtook.

According to the study another important driver of emissions is urbanization — emissions from household consumption are more significant than the sheer growth of population or even the decreasing household size. When people move from the countryside to the city lifestyle changes take place. Urban dwellers, for example, tend to seek gas heating and electricity and also depend more upon a transport infrastructure to get to work, all of which implies a higher per capita carbon footprint.

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China's new forests aren't as green as they seem

China’s new forests aren’t as green as they seem : Nature News.

Impressive reports of increased forest cover mask a focus on non-native tree crops that could damage the ecosystem, says Jianchu Xu.

 

In the United Nations’ 2011 International Year of Forests, China is heralded as a superstar. Almost single-handedly, the country has halted long-term forest loss across Asia, and even turned it into a net gain. Since the 1990s, China has planted more than 4 million hectares of new forest each year.

Earlier this month, President Hu Jintao pledged that China would do even more. He told a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in Beijing that the nation would increase its total area of forest by 40 million hectares over the next decade. China, he said, is ready to make new contributions to green, sustainable growth.

It sounds impressive, but we risk failing to see the wood for the trees. In China, ‘forest’ includes uncut primary forest, regenerating natural forest and monoculture plantations of non-native trees. The last of these accounts for most of the ‘improvement’ in forest cover.

The State Forestry Administration has claimed that total forest cover in China reached 20.36% in 2008. Most of this results from the increase in tree crops such as fruit trees, rubber and eucalyptus, not recovery of natural forest, yet Chinese data do not record this shift. The change threatens ecosystem services, particularly watershed protection and biodiversity conservation.

“I have seen massive tree plantations on the Tibetan Plateau, in areas where forests never grew.”

Exotic tree species are being planted in arid and semi-arid conditions, where perennial grasses with their extensive root systems would be better protectors of topsoil. Plantation monocultures harbour little diversity; they provide almost no habitat for the country’s many threatened forest species. Plantations generate less leaf litter and other organic inputs than native forests, so soil fauna and flora decrease, and groundwater depletion can be exacerbated by deep-rooted non-native trees that use more water than native species. Afforestation in water-stressed regions might provide wind-breaks, and tree plantations offer some carbon storage. But these benefits come at a high cost to other ecological functions.

Why the intense focus on forest cover? China has long promoted the planting of tree crops. Since 1999, the Grain for Green programme has resulted in some 22 million hectares of new trees on sloping farmland. The programme began after the 1998 Yangtze River floods, which the government blamed on loss of tree cover, although reductions in riparian buffers and soil infiltration capacity probably also had a major role.

Since 2008, forest tenure reform has encouraged the privatization of former collective forests, with more than 100 million hectares affected. Privatization can benefit local economies. But in the absence of any management framework, it has also promoted conversion of natural forests into plantations: smallholders often fell natural forests for immediate income, then plant monoculture tree crops for long-term investment.

Although the Chinese government has shown that it understands environmental fragility, its scientific and policy guidelines do not adequately address the country’s diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. I have seen massive tree plantations on the Tibetan Plateau, in areas where forests never grew before. Local governments face the need to respond to the national imperative for increased forest cover by planting fast-growing species, while also generating the biggest local economic benefits possible. This explains why unsuitable species such as aspens are planted in north China, whereas eucalyptus and rubber trees proliferate in the south.

Perhaps the International Year of Forests can help decision-makers to focus on the various meanings of ‘forest’, and the trade-offs each type entails. Natural recovery is still the best way to restore damaged forests, but restoration requires targeted involvement using the best science.

Afforestation can restore ecosystem function only if the right species are planted in the right place. Further studies are needed on how the mix of species affects ecosystem functions. Sloping lands, for example, benefit from perennial root systems and associated soil microfauna, but trees are not the only, or necessarily the best, way to establish these root systems.

China’s forestry mandate should focus on enhancing environmental services, but policy-makers cannot ignore rural livelihoods. Technical know-how should be provided to local foresters and farmers. Doing away with narrow, one-size-fits-all management targets would also help. The country, with its state-managed market economy, can afford direct payments for forest ecosystem services, but they should only be offered for natural or regenerated forests with proven biological or ecological value.

As an ecologist and agroforestry practitioner, I would like to see China establish parallel forest-management programmes for recovery and restoration of natural forests, and for incorporating working trees into farmlands. Each should include best practices from ecosystem science; a clear definition of tree crop plantations for timber or non-timber products would clarify the separate systems. A dual strategy would require increased collaboration throughout China’s land-management ministries, well supported by interdisciplinary research. But it could ensure that China’s massive investment in forests provides maximum benefits, to both local livelihood and the environment. 

Jianchu Xu is a senior scientist at the World Agroforestry Centre and a professor at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

 

Global supply of rare earth elements could be wiped out by 2012

http://www.naturalnews.com/028028_rare_earth_elements_mining.html#ixzz1UDGpDnER

(NaturalNews) It’s the bubble you’ve probably never heard of: The rare earth bubble. And it’s due to pop in 2012, potentially devastating the industries of western nations that depend on these rare elements.

What industries are those? The automobile industry uses tens of thousands of tons of rare earth elements each year, and advanced military technology depends on these elements, too. Lots of “green” technologies depend on them, including wind turbines, low-energy light bulbs and hybrid car batteries. In fact, much of western civilization depends on rare earth elements such as terbium, lanthanum and neodymium.

So what’s the problem with these rare elements? 97 percent of the world’s supply comes from mines in China, and China is prepared to simply stop exporting these strategic elements to the rest of the world by 2012.

If that happens, the western world will be crippled by the collapse of available rare earth elements. Manufacturing of everything from computers and electronics to farm machinery will grind to a halt. Electronics will disappear from the shelves and prices for manufactured goods that depend on these rare elements will skyrocket.

These 17 rare earth elements (REE) — all of which are metals — are strategic resources upon which entire nations are built. In many ways, they are similar to rubber — a resource so valuable and important to the world that many experts call it the “fourth most important natural resource in the world,” right after water, steel and oil. Without rubber, you couldn’t drive your car to work or water your lawn. Many medical technologies would cease to work and virtually all commercial construction would grind to a halt.

Many of the strategic battles fought in World War II were fought, in fact, over control of rubber, most of which now comes through Singapore and its surrounding regions (Malaysia and Indonesia).

Global shortage of Rare Earth Elements coming…
Now, by threatening to cut off the world’s supply of rare earth elements, China appears to be attempting to monopolize this extremely important strategic resource. According to information received by The Independent, by 2012 China may cease all exports of rare earth elements, reserving them for its own economic expansion.

An article in that paper quotes REE expert Jack Lifton as saying, “A real crunch is coming. In America, Britain and elsewhere we have not yet woken up to the fact that there is an urgent need to secure the supply of rare earths from sources outside China.”

And yet virtually no one has heard of this problem! People are familiar with peak oil, global warming, ocean acidification, the national debt and the depletion of fossil water, but very few are aware of the looming crisis in rare metals… upon which much of western civilization rests.

For those who still aren’t convinced this is a big deal, consider this: Without rare earth elements, we would have no iPhones. Yeah, I know. That’s a disaster, huh?

We would have no fiber optic cables, either. No X-ray machines, no car stereos and no high-tech missile guidance systems for the military. And here’s the real kicker: No electric motors.

Demand outstrips supply
The problem with the supply of rare earth elements is that demand has skyrocketed over the last decade from 40,000 tons to 120,000 tons. Meanwhile, China has been cutting its exports. Now, it only exports about 30,000 tons a year — only one-fourth of the demand the world needs.

In order to build more “green” technologies, the world will need 200,000 tons of rare earth elements by 2014, predicts The Independent. Yet China now threatens to drop exports to exactly zero tons by 2012.

It isn’t hard to do the math on this: Without China’s exports, the western world will quickly run out of rare earth elements.

Kiss your “green” wind turbines good-bye. And your Toyota Prius production lines, too. No more iPhones and iPods either. Without these rare earth elements, entire industries grind to a halt.

Can we mine it elsewhere?
China isn’t the only geographic region where these rare earth elements are found, but constructing mines to pull these elements out of the ground takes many years. Some mines are under construction right now in other countries that could help fill the demand for REEs, but making them operational is “five to ten years away,” says Lifton.

That means these other mines won’t really be operational until 2015 – 2020. Meanwhile, China could cut off its supply in 2012. That leaves a 3-7 year gap in which these rare earth elements will be in disastrously short supply.

This brings up a couple of very important realizations related to investments:

It is almost certain that the prices for rare earth elements will skyrocket over the next 2 – 5 years. This creates a huge investment opportunity for people willing to take a risk and bet their money on rising prices of these metals.

There’s another big investment opportunity here, too: Recycling rare earth elements. As prices leap higher, it will become more economically feasible to harvest rare earth elements out of garbage dumps and landfills where people are discarding electronics such as motors, computers, sound systems and other such items.

Some smart entrepreneur will no doubt make a fortune by setting up and operating a rare earth element reclamation operation of some kind. These elements, after all, aren’t destroyed when they’re thrown away. They sit around in the trash for eons, just waiting to be reclaimed and re-used.

Lead, for example, is a metal that is successfully recycled today. Something like 85% of all the lead used in America today is reclaimed out of lead-acid batteries and other similar devices. If similar programs could be initiated for the rare metals, we could go a long way towards meeting society’s demand for these elements without having to keep mining them out of the ground.

Because let’s face it: Mining these rare earth elements is a very DIRTY business. That’s part of the contradiction in “green” technologies, by the way: To manufacture them, you need rare metals mined out of ecologically disastrous operations in China. It’s the (literal) “dirty little secret” of the green industry. All these wind turbines, solar panels, hybrid car batteries and fiber optics may seem green to the consumer, but behind them there’s a very dirty mining business that rapes the planet and pollutes the rivers in order to recover these “green” rare metals.

In any case, unless scientists find less-rare alternatives to many of these rare earth metals, we are looking at a serious global supply crunch for the years 2012 – 2020. Add the “rare earth elements bubble” to your list of other bubbles to watch out for in the years ahead.

Some of the 17 rare earth elements
Dysprosium – Makes electric motor magnets 90% lighter

Terbium – Makes electric lights 80% more efficient

Neodymium – Used in motor magnets

Lanthanum – Used for hydrogen storage

Praseodymium – Used in lasers and ceramic materials

Gadolinium – Used to manufacture computer memory

Erbium – Used in the manufacture of vanadium steel

Ytterbium – Used to make infrared lasers

Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/028028_rare_earth_elements_mining.html#ixzz1UDHNBbkg

Can China Survive without Coal?

The Carbon Trap: Can China Survive without Coal?: Scientific American.

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Watt’s book, When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It.

Cold, dark, silent. Close to death. Buried in the depths of a collapsed, illegal coal mine, Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou knew they had been given up for dead.

The rescue effort had been abandoned. The two brothers could no longer hear the sound of mechanical diggers, drills and spades above their heads. Dismayed and exhausted, they had stopped yelling frantically for help.

How long had it been? Hours, days, weeks? There was no way of knowing. When their mobile phone batteries died, they lost all track of time.

And place. With the silence and the darkness came disorientation. They were unsure which way led to the surface and which led deeper into the mountain. They had little evidence that they were even still alive. It was like being lost inside a tomb.

Above ground, their families were already preparing a funeral. In accordance with tradition, relatives had started burning ‘ghost money’ for the two brothers to spend in the other world. Negotiations had begun with the local authorities about compensation. Yet down below, the Mengs stubbornly refused to die.

Driven by a powerful instinct to survive, they fought against the earth and the darkness, against death itself. The brothers started digging. They hacked and shovelled, using a single pick and their bare hands. They were only a few dozen metres from the surface, but despite twenty years of mining experience, they were so panicked and confused by the darkness that they started to worry they were tunnelling deeper into the mountain. They changed direction once, twice, three times, before deciding to head straight up.

With every hour that passed they grew wearier and more depressed. It grew harder to dig, exhausting even to crawl. They filled water bottles with urine. The taste was so foul, they could only drink in small sips and felt like crying after they swallowed. Desperately hungry, Xianchen took to nibbling finger-sized pieces of coal, not knowing it had zero nutritional value. Yet they kept digging. Their companionship was a source of comfort and strength. They slept in each other’s arms to stave off the cold and told jokes about their wives to maintain morale. ‘My wife will be happy after I die. She can find a rich husband in Shenyang to replace me,’ mused Xianchen out loud, then laughingly contradicted himself. ‘But then again, she is an ugly woman with two children so it will be hard for her to remarry.’ Humour does not get much blacker than laughter in a collapsed coal mine. But it kept them going for six days, until finally, miraculously, they scratched their way to the surface.

Weak and close to starvation, they emerged blinking into the light, then staggered to the village where they were met with a hero’s welcome and incredulous joy that the dead could rise from their tombs. They were carried off to hospital, where the doctors treated their damaged kidneys and journalists bombarded them with questions. The mine owner, meanwhile, was on the run. Aware that the standard bribes would not protect him from a deadly accident investigation, he had fled as soon as he heard of the collapse.

The survival of the magnificent Meng brothers made front-page headlines in Beijing. Their experience captured the Chinese zeitgeist of the past thirty years—gritty, poor, dirty, illegal, dangerous, willing to go to almost any lengths to get ahead, ill as a result, but surviving long after being written off. They had been trapped in a carbon hell in which they dug, ate, inhaled and were almost suffocated by coal, yet they had lived to tell the tale.

China finds itself in a similar predicament in the first decade of this century. Demand for energy continues to grow and most of it comes from underground. The economy is utterly dependent on coal. It provides 69.5 per cent of the country’s energy, a greater degree of reliance than that of any other major nation. This, more than anything, explains why China is so cautious in setting carbon targets in international climate talks such as the 2009 summit in Copenhagen. Cheap coal generates electricity for Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, fires the steel mills of Huaxi, powers the production lines of Guangdong, and allows consumers in the West to buy Chinese goods at a knockdown price. No other fuel has such an impact on the environment.

Collieries destroy arable land and grazing pastures, erode topsoil, worsen air and water pollution, increase levels of river sediment (raising the risk of floods), and accelerate deforestation (especially if the coal is used to make charcoal). The country’s most pressing environmental problems—acid rain, smog, lung disease, water contamination, loss of aquifers and the filthy layer of black dust that settled on many villages—can all be traced back in varying degrees to this single cause.

Then there are the losses caused by global warming. In 2007 China overtook the US as the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases because it was so dependent on this fossil fuel. For each unit of energy, coal produces 80 per cent more carbon dioxide than natural gas, and 20 per cent more than oil. This does not even include methane released from mines, for which China accounts for almost half the global total.

Coal is compressed history, buried death. Geologists estimate the seams of anthracite and bituminate in northern China were formed from the Jurassic period onward. Within them are the remains of ferns, trees, mosses and other life-forms from millions of years ago. Though long extinguished on the surface world, they still—like ghosts or the Meng brothers—possess form and energy. Consider coal with a superstitious eye and foul air might seem a curse suffered for disinterring pre-ancient life. Described with a little poetic licence, global warming is a planetary fever caused by burning too much of our past. But whether we prefer these archaic formulations or modern science, the conclusion is the same: the more we dig and burn, the worse we breathe.

Given the low priority the Chinese coal industry places on ecological and health concerns, it is little surprise that safety standards are also appalling. The country’s collieries are the most dangerous in the world. Since the start of economic reforms, the equivalent of an entire city of people has died underground.

More than 170,000 miners have been killed in tunnel collapses, explosions and floods, a death rate per tonne at least thirty times higher than that in the United States. Countless more will perish prematurely of pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease, because there is little or no protection from the dust in the enclosed tunnels. Mine deaths are so frequent that if the Meng brothers had been less stubborn about surviving, the collapse at their pit could easily have gone unreported. All that is unique in their story is that they emerged to tell the tale.

With 20 per cent of the world’s population and a fast growing econ- omy, China needs huge amounts of fuel.

Deposits of oil and gas are small relative to the country’s size, but coal is abundant. Unfortunately, it is mostly of low quality and inconveniently located in the northwest, the opposite end of the country from where it is most needed: the manufacturing belt of the southeast.

The cleanest solution would be to transform the fuel into electricity or gas near the source and transfer it via power lines or pipes. But this would mean the mining provinces receiving even less economic benefit. So the coal has to be transported by train, barge and ship at huge extra cost to the economy and the environment. Coal accounts for 40 per cent of the freight on China’s railways. On the track from Shanxi through Beijing to the southeast, I counted in astonishment as double locomotives pulled a train of more than two hundred cars each loaded high with more than 60 tonnes of coal and ash. There was another ten minutes later. Then another. A million tons could pass along a single line in a day.

Millions of dollars flow in the other direction. China’s spectacular economic rise can be tracked by the volume of coal mined, freighted and burned. During the Mao era, colliery production was held back by centralised price restraints that turned coal into red ink. But after the market reforms of the late 1970s and early 1980s, digging mines suddenly became the quickest way to get rich. The wealth of Shanxi’s colliery bosses was notorious.

The problems caused by coal were not entirely their fault—the state’s control over extraction rights and frequent crackdowns encouraged mine owners to cash in as quickly as possible and with minimum concern for safety. But mine owners were a reviled group, who were accused of having blood on their hands, ruining the land and being the epitome of bad taste. Young people who drove flashy cars, wore loud clothes and treated people badly were taunted as being “like the child of a Shanxi mine own- er.” The image was not helped by the forty Porsches seen at the ostentatious wedding parade of one of these children.

Pan Yue, the deputy environment minister, described the bosses as little more than parasites. “Coal-mine owners from Shanxi province indiscriminately extract coal and dig up the land, creating pollution. As a result they become extremely wealthy. Once they have polluted Shanxi, however, they do not stay there. Instead they move to Beijing, where they buy luxury villas and push up house prices. They have also pushed up property prices in all the coastal regions of north China. If these areas then become polluted, they will no doubt move to the US, Canada or Australia and cause inflation there too. They create pollution, but are removed from its consequences. They take all the benefits of polluting industries, but pay nothing towards the clean-up costs.”

The true cost of the mines never shows up on balance sheets. For the mining provinces, it is a curse. They receive far from a fair market price because the mines are owned by the state and the colliery owners get the rights to profit from extraction. The prosperity of cities like Shanghai and Beijing is based on cheap energy from provinces like Shanxi and Shaanxi, which are left with the environmental and health costs. One influential study estimates the environmental and social costs associated with China’s use of coal at about 7.1 per cent of the nation’s GDP in 2007.

Industry forecasters say it can’t go on. Without a long-term strategic plan, the country’s reserves will be exhausted before the end of the century. The government has responded with a drive for more efficiency, the key focus of president Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development.” It has closed small private mines and opened automated mega-collieries. It has replaced small old thermal plants with supercritical and ultra-supercritical generators equipped with scrubbers and other technology to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide (though it has not always been properly used). Policymakers are studying the possibility of a carbon tax. More public funds and utility cash are being invested in “clean coal” technology. Along with the tightening of safety standards, this has begun to drive up the cost of domestic coal, as has Shanxi’s introduction of an ecological restoration fund.

Indeed, as prices soared in 2008, many factories in the southeast started importing from Australia and elsewhere. Abandoning coal completely is not, of course, an option, as I learned in a discussion with Xiao Yunhan, an energy visionary at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Nobody likes coal, even in China. But do you have a better solution for our energy supply problems?” he said. He expected consumption of coal to double over the following ten years. For at least another two decades, China would be trapped in a coal-dependent economy.

“Even if China utilises every kind of energy to the maximum level, it is still difficult for us to produce enough energy for economic development. It’s not a case of choosing coal or renewables. We need both,” the senior scientist said. “We have to use coal so the best thing we can do is make that use as efficient as possible.”

Unlike the Meng brothers, people will not be expected to eat lumps of anthracite, but industrialists are expected to find new ways to consume carbon. In addition to installing newer and more efficient power plants, China is also ahead of other nations in developing and adopting Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology that turns coal into gas, removes impurities, maximises efficiency and can capture carbon. In the future, Xiao predicted plants will be able to turn coal into gas and diesel, capturing and eventually sequestrating carbon dioxide emissions. Some of the technology is at an advanced stage of development.

“That’s my idea. At Shanxi and Shaanxi, coal-to-oil and IGCC will be integrated into one system. In this regard, China is ahead of other nations. The US is only talking about this,” he told me matter-of-factly over a cup of green tea.

The technology is expensive, but Xiao estimated that China could build and operate IGCC plants for about a third of the price of the US. In the near future, he predicted China would have to choose whether to invest primarily in supercritical plants, which burn coal efficiently, or IGCC facilities that dealt more effectively with carbon. The latter are more expensive, but price is not the only consideration. “The uncertainty of climate change constraints is a factor in deciding which plants we build,” he said. “If we don’t need to worry about CO2 emissions, then supercritical plants make more sense. But if we are concerned about carbon dioxide, then IGCC is the best. This is the big decision we must make in the next five to ten years . . . Sequestration will be the final solution for carbon dioxide control. But before that we should try other things.”

Isn’t the priority in the long term to reduce demand?” I asked.

He shrugged and smiled. “We cannot deny people a happy life. But we also must not deny future generations a happy life,” I said.

“True,” he replied.

From When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–or Destroy It by Jonathan Watts. © 2010 Jonathan Watts. Reproduced by permission of Scribner.

Death toll in China landslides rises to 1,117

Death toll in China landslides rises to 1,117 – Yahoo! News.

ZHOUQU, China – Heavy rains lashed a remote section of northwestern China as the death toll from weekend flooding that triggered massive landslides jumped to 1,117, although the fading hopes of rescuers got a boost late Wednesday when a survivor was found in the debris.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency gave no immediate details on the survivor, found nearly four days after the disaster struck. Earlier Wednesday, a 50-year-old man was rescued who had been trapped in knee-deep mud on the second floor of a hotel, Xinhua said.

Local officials were cited as saying at least 627 people were still missing.

The National Meteorological Center warned there was a “relatively large” chance of more landslides in the coming days, as heavier rain was expected, with up to 3 1/2 inches (90 millimeters) forecast for Friday.

Troops and rescue teams, joined by traumatized survivors, were increasingly turning to recovering bodies and seeing to the needs of the living. Clean drinking water was a primary concern, with most local sources destroyed or too polluted to use.

Entire communities in Gansu province’s Zhouqu district were swallowed when the debris-choked Bailong River jumped its banks early Sunday, releasing wave after wave of mud and rubble-strewn water. While torrential rains were the direct cause, tree cutting that left the dry hills exposed and the weakening of cliff faces by a massive 2008 earthquake were seen as contributing factors.

Buildings were torn from their foundations, their lower floors blown out by the force of the debris-laden water. Three villages comprising hundreds of households were entirely buried and much of the county seat was submerged.

“In some households, all the people have died,” making the counting of the dead more difficult, Zhang Weixing, a Ministry of Civil Affairs official, told a news conference Wednesday.

Crews using explosives and excavators rushed to drain an unstable lake on the Bailong upriver of Zhouqu, fearing more rain could cause a massive breach, bringing more misery to the town.

“The danger of the barrier lake collapsing has been basically eliminated,” Jiao Yong, deputy vice minister of the Ministry of Water Resources, told the news conference.

Disinfectant crews in protective suits sprayed chemicals across the ground and over machinery, the smell of death heavy in the air. State media reported numerous cases of dysentery, while infected injuries, a lack of sanitation, clean drinking water and accumulating garbage increased the risk of typhoid, cholera and other diseases.