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China leads way amid need for green tech progress

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Global Times, 13 December, 2017

The 2016 UN “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment” shows how far China is ahead of the rest of the world. It is advancing not only investment in current green technology but also in more efficient techniques to create green energy. Of course, China was on trend even before the breakthrough 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. There was a defining meeting in Beijing in November 2014 when the US and China both agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, their two paths have diverged – China leads, and US President Donald Trump has withdrawn from the 2015 Paris accord.

All parties to the Paris Agreement must declare their best efforts via nationally determined contributions (NDCs). They must report regularly on their actual emissions and on their minimization efforts; and every five years there will be a global stock-take to assess collective progress. Thus, by 2020, all nations shall agree their routes to achieve the overarching goal of restraining global warming.

The 23rd Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP23) took place in Bonn, Germany in early November this year. I do not propose to follow the many media lines about that meeting, but to “slice the pie” differently, and look at the global situation from the viewpoints of citizens, their governments, and in one case the citizens and government jointly.

Let me take the latter first. Essentially this group comprises the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) set up in 1990 and embraces sea-level states such as the Maldives. The overriding issue for AOSIS governments and their people is how to survive as state-less people once their land becomes submerged. No other nation wishes to cede territory to these people; and their claim that care should come from developed nations who caused the climate change tends to fall on deaf ears.

Next – citizens in general. Round the globe, in all large cities, haze is increasing. Often people never see blue sky and many die early from lung failures exacerbated by the pollution. The latter may be caused by vehicle exhaust fumes reacting with sunlight, brake or tire dust from the traffic, or by the wind drift of industrial pollution. The rural to urban migration of people looking for better jobs has intensified the issue, which is perhaps particularly the case in China. Citizens call on their mayors and governments to “do something about the pollution” while being unwilling to relinquish their energy-consuming lifestyles and their motor transport.

Finally – the governments. The major economies struggle to increase growth and well-being in a world mired in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2007. Yet slowly economic growth is increasing and in many nations the people, though they deny this, have more discretionary spending money than in 2010. They are wealthier, and governments can generally take in more tax to spend on necessary projects. However, a wealthier nation also demands more energy per person to live, produce goods and create luxuries – processes that need more electricity. Once the cheapest method was to increase the number of coal-fired generators, but the Paris accord has countered this, demanding nations look to greener solutions involving wind, solar or hydro power.

This pressure has resulted in China becoming the world’s leading nation in electricity production from renewable sources. And the Chinese government can be assured that its push to make electric vehicles almost compulsory in cities will work for the good of all. Of course, a battery powered vehicle is only displacing pollution from the city to elsewhere, but the city will be cleaner and its people healthier.

China is following a consistent and strong anti-pollution drive in its factories and also cleaning-up its rivers, aquifers and lakes. It is, however, a long process and its people (like citizens everywhere) demand instant action that cannot scientifically take place. Individually we are impatient.

At the COP23 meeting in Bonn, members reviewed progress and worried about the effect of the US withdrawing from the Paris accord. There is anxiety that some nations might hide behind the skirts of the US and not mitigate their own pollution levels. But the elephant roaming through the meeting was the perceptible dread that whatever any nation undertook to reduce their pollution levels it would not be enough to constrain the global temperature rise. It was accepted that the scientific background to the 2015 accord did not sufficiently address how to achieve “negative emissions” to rapidly reduce the stock of CO2 already in the atmosphere.

The technique of capturing CO2 at source (from power stations burning fossil fuel) is not viable at scale. And another mode, to capture the CO2 gas and feed it directly into a factory making fertilizers or plastics has not yet been widely adopted due to either an inability to visualize business benefits or a lack of government incentives.

There are growing signs that China is ahead in green technology applications, and in researching efficient techniques to create green energy. It is hoped that China will be able to cast a wider net to extract polluting gasses directly from the atmosphere. It will be a marvel if the Chinese government can take the lead in this regard.