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China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative

By Joe Romm

"China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative"

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China’s rapacious coal plant building is neither moral nor sustainable, as discussed in Part I. Yet many supply-side alternatives, like nuclear and hydro, are problemmatic for the country.

What should China do to satisfy its insatiable thirst for energy? Go back to their amazing energy efficiency policies of the 1980s and early 1990s.

China’s energy history can be divided into several phases, as we learn from Dr. Mark Levine, co-founder of the Beijing Energy Efficiency Center (see terrific video here).

The first phase (1949-1980) was a “Soviet Style” energy policy during which there were subsidized energy prices, no concern for the environment, and an energy use that rose faster than economic growth (GDP).

The second phase (1981 to 1999) was “California on steroids,” when the country embraced an aggressive push on energy management and energy efficiency, surpassing the efficiency efforts California achieved since the mid-1970s. This came about as a result of Deng Xiaoping heeding the advice of a group of leading academic experts who suggested a new approach to energy. Chinese strategies included:

  • factory energy consumption quotas and energy conservation monitoring
  • efficient technology promotion and closing of inefficient facilities
  • controls on oil use
  • low interest rates for efficiency project loans
  • reduced taxes on efficient product purchases
  • incentives to develop new efficient products
  • monetary awards to efficient enterprises
  • strategic technology development and demonstration
  • national, local, and industry-specific efficiency technical service and training centers

During the mid-1990s, China also began dramatic energy price reforms, which led to higher prices for coal, oil, and electricity. China’s policies kept energy growth to a modest level during a time of explosive economic growth. For instance, from 1990 to 2000, their economy more than doubled, but carbon dioxide emissions rose by only one fourth. Remarkably, during the 1990s, the United States actually increased its annual emissions of carbon dioxide more than China did.

Unfortunately, toward the end of the last decade, China scaled back or eliminated many of its efficiency efforts, leading to the third phase of the country’s energy history (2000 to present), “Energy Crisis.” China’s energy demand growth began soaring again, rising much more rapidly than GDP. As of 2005, China was burning twice as much coal as the United States. China now consumes more than twice as much steel as the United States, and produces nearly as much cement as the rest of the world.

They need to bring back a serious efficiency effort, while aggressively pursuing low-carbon or zero-carbon supply options. Or we can kiss a livable climate goodbye.

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4 Responses to China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative

  1. Steve says:

    Perhaps not to the same degree, but is it not at some point also “immoral” to buy and consume, as Americans, the products coming out of these energy-intensive factories which rely upon dirty-coal power plants?

    When it comes to China, we have a way of mobilizing informal boycotts of other questionable products — toys, medicine, seafood. I suspect many of this site’s visitors would appreciate knowing specific products they should not buy, and the equivalent elsewhere-manufactured products they should buy instead.

    On a related note, I’d urge you, Joe, each week, or every fifth or tenth post — whatever — to give your readers a concrete, easily-implemented constructive thing to do about the climate crisis. Some readers are likely to widely disseminate the idea beyond your blog by mass email messaging or everyday communications to others, and it might create a “feedback” by bringing new readers to ClimateProgress.

    What if by ripple effect, starting here, 100,000… then 500,000… motorists just forever stopped buying Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and Texaco brand gasoline? If everything you say about that corporation is true (and you had a similar critique of ChevronTexaco), it borders on our being immoral to patronize their retail outlets. Look at ExxonMobil’s stock performance today because it missed numbers on retail and refining profits. Why not help them miss numbers again? (Yes, cut back gasoline consumption altogether, but reward comparatively more responsible companies such as ConocoPhillips and BP Arco.) Everything has to start elsewhere.

    Then, in a similar vein, let’s circulate the names of the best solar panel companies out there… the worst-offending Chinese manufacturers or products… a member of Congress doing something right, who deserves popular recognition… a grassroots organization or youth climate crisis organization which deserves support… specifics such as your recent post on phantom energy consumption. I don’t know what your readership count is, but I suspect they would like to see ways to become more engaged.

    People appreciate being informed and it is no doubt an initial first step, but at a certain point, there are diminishing returns when education is not translated into action. Action, however, typically leads to more action and more actors. The person actively involved then becomes a more politically-engaged voter. Otherwise, you have education without effectiveness and results, not unlike a very intelligent, outstanding-shooting basketball player, who in the game itself, never shoots the ball.

    Lastly, there is also something to be said for not drowning people in information about imminent catastrophic events without giving them the tools — beyond writing in their vote for Senator Obama for President next fall — to start doing something, and letting that resonate among other persons and leading to other and greater activity.

    On this, here is a link to an interesting study cited in the excellent NY Times blog you recently recommended:

    http://www.ippr.org.uk/pressreleases/?id=2240

    Good job, Joe, on the radio interview at Earthbeat. (You and Bill Becker really ought to compare notes on where you hope to go with this blog, and what you’d like to see your bloggers doing… beyond blogging.)

  2. Joe says:

    My goal is to 1) motivate political action on climate, 2) arm progressives with the facts and links to the best studies, info, etc, 3) debunk the deniers and delayers, 4) entertain. Hopefully that will be enough for most people — readership continues to climb.

    There are lots of websites that give people ideas for individual action — I’m not sure that is my niche. I’m trying to stay away from endorsing products or companies, though I will occasionally.

    I saw that 2006 study — not sure I agree with it. Seems like Gore’s (and others’) message of alarm has actually worked in motivating action at the state level and opening the door to real federal action once Bush leaves.

    I appreciate your comments.

  3. msn nickleri says:

    I saw that 2006 study — not sure I agree with it. Seems like Gore’s (and others’) message of alarm has actually worked in motivating action at the state level and opening the door to real federal action once Bush leaves.

  4. Conservation is of course wise policy for China as well as the rest of the world. But conservation can only go so far, and for countries acquiring an American-style economy based on profligate energy use, it sounds like the colonialists are trying to restrain their development. That’s especially true when they see Americans being as wasteful as ever. As China moves to electric cars, its need for more power will grow because only coal can supply enough power to run those electric cars.

    The key is CO2 capture out of the flue gas emitted by their pulverized coal power plants. Here is an idea for mechanical carbon capture and fly ash scrubbing using von Karman swirling flow in an open system: http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2009/0013867.pdf