China: my initial experience

I started writing this blog sitting in my room on the 16th floor of a 27th floor hotel that is absolutely dwarfed by the scale of the tower next to it. The hotel room was the size of a one bedroom London flat (38 sqm) and absolutely luxurious. With the scale  of the buildings around me it was hard to remember that China is still classed as a developing country with over 170 million people still living below the $1.25-a-day international poverty line.

To give you a little context the Chinese energy mix is totally dominated by coal, making up 70% of the energy mix in 2009. This is followed by oil contributing almost 20% and nuclear making up only 1% of the mix (figures from 2009). By 2015 however the Chinese government aim to raise non-fossil fuel production to 11.4% (7.3% in 2009, including nuclear). Still one of the first things that struck me was the obvious pollution and appalling air quality, followed by the noticeable rubbish scattered through fields and rivers.

CCTV Building in the morning smog

CCTV Building in the morning smog

There is an incredible amount of UK-China research collaboration currently underway and the energy sector is one of the most successful areas for these international collaborations. Currently EPSRC are the main funding body for joint calls between the UK and China, investing over £25million to date. This is matched by funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. So far these collaborative efforts have ranged from smart grids, fuel cells, CCS and sustainable energy and the built environment. Over the coming months I’ll be working on an event to highlight the successes from these projects.

My concern with all of this is the priority of meeting the demand, reducing demand doesn’t appear on the agenda. The per capita emissions in China are on the up and with 1.3 billion people it doesn’t seem to matter how much the UK or even Europe reduces its emissions (don’t take that to mean I don’t think we should still try though). The whole UK population is the equivalent of Guangzhou and Shanghai together! Two cities! How do you ensure emissions stabilise and reduce long term while ensure people have access to clean energy?

China is aiming to reduce CO2 emissions by 40-45% on 2005 levels both solar and wind energy have a key role to play in helping to meet this targets. The IET are hosting a conference  in September 2013 will focus on Renewable Power Generation and will focus on solar and wind renewables. District heating and cooling from low carbon sources could also work well and help reduce the pollution problems as well as the CO2 emissions. Air conditioning units are a common site retrofitted to most of the apartment blocks I saw in Beijing and contribute greatly to pollution levels in summer.

The other large emitter is the thousand, if not millions, of cars on the roads in Beijing. How do you provide a means of low carbon transport for 1.3billion people? One that is as aspirational and desirable to use as a car? The Beijing subway was clean, cheap and easy to use however I think would need to be expanded exponentially to realistically displace a significant number of road users. And that is just one experience in one city, I have no idea about the situation at large in China.

The National Stadium from the 4 lane highway

The National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) from the 4 lane highway beside it

The final thing worth noting from my initial experience is how fascinating the Mandarin language is. I have never felt so ignorant in all of the countries I have travelled to as I did trying to communicate in Beijing, so much so I had to take a photo of the name of the tube station I got on at to ensure I could find my way back. One of the people I met in Beijing suggested you would need to know about 3000 characters to read a newspaper or get by in everyday life! In time for my next trip I hope to be able to say more than hello, thank you, cheers and I don’t want to buy. I would recommend anyone to visit Beijing, it was truly incredible and an eye opening experience…


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