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Airpocalypse now

Last week, as an impenetrable toxic fog once again blanketed Beijing, the residents of China’s capital city were warned to stay indoors.

It’s been dubbed “the Airpocalypse”. It’s a stark and shocking illustration of the environmental price being paid for China’s rapid industrialisation. And for many in the West, it reinforces a popular view that it’s futile and pointless to nibble away at our emissions in the face of China’s relentless growth.

On the face of it, there’s a compelling thrust to these arguments. China is the world’s biggest polluter. It’s responsible for around 30 per cent of the world’s emissions and has arguably had a bigger impact on the climate than any other country in history. In its defence, it’s worth noting that a fair chunk of these emissions are effectively down to outsourced production from places like the UK, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too judgemental. But you get the picture.

However, there is a sense in which China’s rapid industrial growth has enabled it to learn the lessons of industrialisation far more quickly and dramatically than the West. And whilst its emissions continue to grow, the country is, somewhat paradoxically, now doing more than anyone else on the planet to drive the development of renewable energy technology.

China has been leading the world in green energy investment for a number of years now and (thanks to a mix of wind, solar, and hydroelectrics) also has the world’s biggest installed capacity of renewable energy.

But in wake of pubic outcry over its smog  - and the first tentative signs of official recognition that the pollution is costing lives - its already ambitious plans appear to have received a shot in arm and the country is reportedly planning on investing around $470bn in renewable technology over the next five years.

Its ambitions are huge. It wants renewables to form 20 per cent of  generating capacity by 2020 and to achieve parity in the energy mix with coal. With wind energy alone, it’s aiming for 200GW of installed capacity by the end of the decade.  

It’s important not to get too carried away. China’s clean energy revolution is welcome and, for many, surprising news. But the country’s emissions are continuing to grow, and there are still huge concerns over its wider impact on the climate.

But one thing is clear. Politicians, the public, and businesses in the West indulge in endless hand-wringing and arguing over targets, subsidies and investment whilst China has quietly got on with it and is approaching dominance in a sector that the likes of the UK once regarded as an area of particular expertise and promise.

There are many misconceptions about Chinese industry: that its purely about high volume and low quality, that it lacks the advanced manufacturing expertise found in places like the UK and that it lacks the creativity to develop its own IP. Some of this may have been true in the past, but it certainly isn’t now. And as its strident renewables industry shows – Western business and governments stick to these misconceptions at their peril.


Readers' comments (10)

  • We have lots of unique wave energy technology promising to outperform the traditional technologies, that we would be glad to share with Chinese companies and researchers. Can anybody suggest how we could make the necessary contacts?

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  • Have you tried the Technology Strategy Board? It recently ran a green technology trade mission to China. Equally UKTI may be able to help.

  • THe maunfacture of ceramic tiems has mostly left the UK now. Stoke on Trent is not the place it used to be.

    This article reinforces my opinion that environmental taxes, plus high fuel and energy costs don't necassarily protect the planet, they simply move industry to countries where it is more welcome.

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  • Sadly the production of cheap 'renewables' units are hard-focused on exports rather than home installation.
    The Chinese are certainly not going to retrofit very expensive filtration gear to thousands of coal-fuelled power stations and hundreds of inner city factories, much of which is German or US made. And as for building sewage treatment plants - not in our lifetime!

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  • The "hand-wringing" over subsidies for new renewable generation is another manifestation of the 'let's-shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot' state aid restrictions imposed by the European Commission's brainless neoliberal ideology.

    Worse still is the gross mismanagement of R&D funding from the EU and its member states. Ideas are drowned at birth in a sea of petty bureaucracy/restrictions, which UK government's are only too happy to endorse.

    Top of the list is the British interpretation that "Public bodies (supposedly designed to promote innovation) are not 'allowed' to own IPR." Since SMEs and universities can't afford the cost and risk of patents, that just perpetuates our quaint custom of giving away or selling dirt cheap some of our most valuable inventions, not to mention killing off new ideas that can't 'prove' they are of any commercial value, or are seen by the incumbent industry as too disruptive.

    One study, many years ago, reckoned the loss to the UK economy was something like £8bn a year. Nothing was done to address the problem. "This is not a role for the government." - I'm told.

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  • China's type of pollution is nothing to do with climate change but everything to do with dirty emissions , just as we had before the Clean Air Act. Until they clean up emissions from power stations, factories and transport and domestic fires, they will continue to have severe smogs. They should legislate to clean up emissions as a priority before spending too much on non cost effective "climate change" activities

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  • Would this be the same China that

    " approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity in 2013 – six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 per cent of U.S. annual usage – flying in the face of plans to tackle choking air pollution. The scale of the increase, which only includes major mines, reflects Beijing’s aim to put 860 million tonnes of new coal production capacity into operation over the five years to 2015, more than the entire annual output of India. --David Stanway, Reuters, 7 January 2014

    The only thing that is green around here is the usual Green tinged "useful idiots" in the west not realising that Chinas push for renewables is for export only. They are not stupid enough to burden their industry but they know they can cripple the Wests solar cell and wind generation manufacturing capacity.

    Just as Lenin stated "that the capitalists would sell us the rope which we would hang them with," the Chinese will sell us the products to bankrupt our own industries.

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  • It is, of course, deeply racist to suggest that China is only developing renewables so that it can bankrupt the West. It couldn't possibly be that, as a country led mostly by engineers and scientists, they're taking the risk of climate change seriously?

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  • As someone who has been actively involved with China since 1986 I find it mildly amusing that people may think that China is a country mainly led by engineers and scientists. China is very firmly led by (communist) politicians, who make very long term plans which are entirely developed to maintain their position of power. The industrialisation of China has been driven by this and has resulted in very high levels of pollution. The move to clean up their environment is driven by the same goals, which require the population of the cities to be kept reasonably content.

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  • Poiticians with a background in technology. President Li Xinping has a degree in chemical engineering; Premier Wen Jiabao has postgraduate qualifications in geomechanics.

  • The west has been attempting to meet it's unrealistic 'Green' targets by exporting its smog production elsewhere and creating worse smog in the process. Sheer lunacy. Return manufacturing to Britain, focus on renewables and home produced fuels that offer realistic returns, not the giant 'con' that is wind power and until Fusion becomes a realistic power source, invest in home grown Nuclear power.

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  • Further to David Smarts comment I have a revolutionary new environmental technology that needs a multi disciplinary R&D effort but as I am not a SME just am impoverished guy with a patented idea I do not have the collateral to go to the Bank to match any possible Govt. Grant. Asa consequence I'm on the verge of calling it a day and let the future go hang itself. Very sad. The old DTI and the London Business Link both said that it was one of the 50 year global changing technologies that pops up from time to time!

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