Green giants?

10 min read

The UK is working with India and China to develop green technologies, belying the perception of Asia as a runaway threat to the climate

In the direst predictions of environmental meltdown, the spectres of China and India frequently loom large. Respectively the planet’s most populous countries, their rapid industrialisation, spiralling energy demand and increasing appetite for the luxuries of the West, will, we are often told, negate and outweigh the climate-saving efforts of the rest of the world.

But while these fears are not without foundation, it would be wrong to portray China and India as out-of-control beasts destined to repeat the mistakes of Europe and the US.

Both nations boast sophisticated industries, world-leading technical expertise and a genuine appetite to engage with the world’s top engineers and researchers on the development of low-carbon technologies. And, increasingly, this means collaboration with researchers from industrialised nations, including the UK.

One of the people at the sharp end of this collaborative process is Nigel Brandon of Imperial College London, professor of sustainable energy, a top government advisor on energy in China and a senior research council (RCUK) fellow charged with looking at international collaboration in the energy sector.

Although recently starting to turn its gaze to India, RCUK’s attention has so far been focussed on China, and there’s plenty of activity. Last year, it announced £6m funding for nine energy projects, looking at issues ranging from printable solar cells for large-scale generation to hydrogen storage and is poised to give the go-ahead to a further nine clean fossil-fuel programmes.

With China adding the equivalent of the UK’s entire generating capacity each year, it is easy to see why its rise is often portrayed as a catastrophe in the making, but, according to Brandon, current collaborations show that the Chinese have a far greater appetite to address climate-change issues than they are often given credit for. ‘The Chinese recognise that while in the past it was about economic development whatever the cost, it is no longer about that; it is about sustainable economic development and addressing the environmental impact. And they are genuinely, at a policy and a regional level, trying to do something about it.’

This is reflected in the country’s first-ever energy white paper. Published in December 2007, this document contains some pretty ambitious targets, including the reduction of pollutant emissions by 10 per cent, the reduction of energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 per cent and plans to increase the use of renewable energy to 16 per cent by 2020.

‘I have seen a real change in China even in the last two years that I have been going there,’ said Brandon. ‘They see the need to address this issue. They see the opportunity to develop technology — especially building on their manufacturing base.’

The Chinese government is also very worried about the local impact of climate change. ‘China is very conscious that it is going to suffer the impact of climate change,’ he added. ‘Its water supply is very sensitive to aspects of glacial melting. They know that they are at risk of being one of the countries impacted at an early stage, not so much from rising sea waters but from rainfall and access to water.’

With a quarter of its population drinking polluted water and 35 per cent of people in urban areas breathing polluted air, the significant pollution-related health problems affecting large swathes of the population are another driver for change.

Brandon believes the UK could play an important role in helping China clean up its factories and meet the robust targets it has in place for reducing emissions such as sulphur and Nox. ‘If you go to certain parts of China, particularly the Guangzhou region, which is the manufacturing heartland, it is not a clean place to be. It is reminiscent of what the UK was like in the 1950s, so there are lessons to be learned. We are very keen that they do not make the same mistakes that we made — we’ve been there.’

This desire to get involved with China isn’t just limited to the research bodies. Acutely aware of the commercial opportunities available in one of the world’s few vigorous economies, UK industry also spies big opportunities in the Chinese energy industry.

Tina Redshaw, who heads up the UK Trade and Industry (UKTI) China Energy, Environment and Infrastructure team, is charged with matching UK industrial expertise with Chinese requirements.

Breaking off from showing a delegation of Chinese industrialists around some of the UK’s most energy-efficient factories, she echoed Brandon’s comments. ‘We have seen an increase in interest both by UK companies wanting to introduce their expertise and services to China and an interest on the Chinese side to see what we have on offer. It feels as though there’s been a considerable ramping up. Our message to UK companies is that there are opportunities overseas.’

But the UK’s desire to get involved in China is fuelled by more than just economic objectives.

One of the key reasons for collaborating on research, said Brandon, is that the country has a far stronger science base than it is often given credit for. ‘We shouldn’t treat China as a second-rate citizen in science,’ said Brandon. ‘It has an extremely strong science and engineering base and some extremely good people and facilities, in some areas better facilities than we have in the UK. As with anywhere else in the world, one of the main motivations is putting the best UK researchers in touch with the best teams elsewhere in the world.’

Indeed, while Redshaw’s Chinese delegates will hopefully return home with some new ideas, the UK can also learn much from Chinese industry. ‘China has a very strong emphasis on energy demand reduction, which we could learn something from,’ said Brandon. ‘That’s not to say that it does not have energy-intensive sectors — it does — and indeed some of its industry is old and inefficient, but China is increasingly closing down its old industrial sites and building new state-of-the-art ones.’

UK involvement in China is also driven by an understanding that climate change can only truly be addressed on a global level. ‘Given China’s importance as an economic nation, particularly in the future, and its importance in the energy sector as an emitter of CO2, it is incumbent on us to collaborate and make certain where we can to contribute to China’s economic development and help them manage their wider sustainability question. There is a role for the UK as there is for other nations in contributing to what is ultimately a global question. Plus, we import a lot of goods from China so we shouldn’t forget that there is a consequence of those imports — and there’s a moral imperative for us to contribute.’

One of the ways that the UK can contribute is in one of its strengths —design and simulation. China’s rapid urbanisation gives it the chance to design cities from scratch, avoiding antiquated infrastructure and creaking utilities that tend to lead to inefficient energy use in older cities. Plans are already reasonably advanced for the first of these new eco-cities: Dongtan, a renewably powered metropolis planned for the island of Chongming near Shanghai. Designed by British engineers at Arup and bringing together a host of researchers from both China and the UK, the project has done much to advance the idea of the eco-city. But sadly the project is currently stalled, and, according to recent reports, a series of high-rise developments have sprung up around the proposed site.

Meanwhile, research aimed at addressing China’s other big environmental issue — its heavy dependence on coal — is yielding more promising results.

Responsible for 40 per cent of the world’s coal usage, China derives 80 per cent of its energy from coal. Although its plants are close to the OECD efficiency average, China’s projected coal usage is what really worries climate scientists. With extraction accelerating, some are predicting that China may have used up to 300GT by the end of this century, releasing around 200GT of CO2 into the atmosphere, and pushing the planet inexorably in the direction of the 500GT that many claim would make runaway climate change unavoidable. ‘You cannot duck that coal issue,’ said Brandon, ‘and China will burn its coal because it has to. How you manage the carbon and sulphur emissions from that is absolutely critical to the global debate on climate change.’

Against this backdrop, one of the most significant UK-China collaborations is undoubtedly the Near Zero Emissions Coal Initiative (NZEC), a joint effort to stimulate the development of carbon capture and storage technology in China.

Although a tremendously important project, Brandon believes that it may be overtaken by events. ‘NZEC has been really good in terms of raising awareness,’ he said, ‘but from my most recent visit it would appear that China is going to go ahead and actually build plants ahead of NZEC. It would appear that the pace of change and development in China is going to be even faster than we originally envisaged.’

India and China are often lumped together in the global-warming debate. Both Asian, sleeping giants for many years and now industrialising at a rapid rate and leveraging their large populations, their growing need for energy generation is seen as making them a source of unfettered carbon emissions. The truth is very different. In terms of the needs of their societies, their goals, attitude, geography and politics, India and China have nothing in common whatsoever.

India is the world’s second-most populous country, housing 1.1 billion people. It has the world’s largest middle class and highly respected universities with a very strong engineering base. But it is also a country of huge disparities. Three-fifths of the population make their living from agriculture and it can be a desperately poor living. The powerhouse of the Indian economy is the service sector but this doesn’t have any impact for most of the population.

There are almost 140 million households in India; fewer than half of them have electricity. Of the 95,000 rural villages, almost 70,000 have no electricity at all; and in many of those that do, only a minority of the buildings have any access. While China is seeing rapid urbanisation and a demand for large power stations for these new cities, the Indian government’s main concern is to get electricity out to these remote villages, to raise living standards. This, it is hoped, will also boost education. Illiteracy rates in rural areas are shockingly high.

India is also the world’s largest democracy. Indian politicians have to worry about public opinion in a way that China’s leaders do not. Industrialisation and the environment are political hot potatoes in India, and policymakers have to treat them carefully. But environmental concerns are inextricably linked to industry because of the one thing that India and China do have in common. India has the world’s fourth-largest coal reserves and expects to generate more than half of its electricity from coal well into the next three decades.

Trevor Drage of Nottingham University’s clean coal research group has sat on the EU-India Working Group on Clean Coal and explained that India’s energy-related research has very different priorities from China’s and from those of the industrialised nations. ‘A lot of their work is to put things back into those impoverished areas and it tends to be more immediate than UK research; smaller scale and with more immediate payback. They are also very focused on efficiency, getting as much power as possible out of their raw materials. They would rather reduce carbon emissions by finding a way to make a 30 per cent-efficient power station 40 per cent efficient than by installing carbon capture and storage.’

There are two reasons for this, one practical and the other political, he explained. ‘Carbon capture takes energy to run; it can reduce the energy efficiency of power stations by 25 to 30 per cent, so you burn more coal, and there are additional costs in top of that. They are very worried about increasing the cost; there is no point building power stations and building a distribution grid if the people cannot afford the electricity.’

Meanwhile, there is strong feeling against carbon capture and storage (CCS) among the Indian public and in government. ‘They don’t want to have technology foisted on them and there is a strong mistrust of carbon storage, in particular,’ said Drage.

Last December, the joint secretary of India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, RR Rashmi, made this very clear. ‘India is not in favour of CCS as the environmental effects are not known,’ he said. ‘If it will leak and create further pollution, if it will explode and create another Bhopal gas tragedy. If the safety is proved beyond doubt, then we may consider using it.’

The inclination is therefore to look into carbon sequestration options, where carbon is physically or chemically bound into another mineral, rather than being captured as a gas. One way of doing this while still meeting the needs of the rural population is to investigate biofuels, Drage explained, and this is another potentially fruitful area for collaboration.

‘The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute [NEERI] in Nagpur is trying to develop a low-cost catalyst to convert biomass into something called black carbon or biochar, and we are involved in a co-project on that,’ he said. Biochar is a form of charcoal that can be mixed with soil to improve its water-retention properties, a practice that has been used for centuries in South America, using deposits left behind from ancient civilisations. ‘The idea is to make hydrogen directly from the biomass, to use as an energy carrier; at the moment, the research is looking at very basic biomass compounds such as cellulose, so we can understand the fundamentals of the reaction to form char. We also have some funding from the National Environment Research Council in the UK to look at how stable black carbon is in soil. There are theories that it might be stable for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, but we need to test its stability to see whether that is just a myth.’

There is also interest in India in solar power, especially in more direct applications of the power than for generating electricity. Another problem of the rural areas is in the availability of clean water. Desalination and purification consume power and involve complicated plant. This is another area that is seeing collaboration, with researchers at Heriot-Watt University working with the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai to develop solar concentrators for sun-powered desalination plants, which would use membrane filtration to purify the water. Heriot-Watt is looking at systems using luminescence to increase the absorption of short-wavelength light, while the Chennai team is working on the most efficient geometry for the collector.

But nobody in India doubts that most of its energy is going to come from burning coal. India’s deposits, the fourth richest in the world, are relatively poor quality coal, with high ash and sulphur content. It is generally mixed with higher-quality coals imported from South Africa and Australia; even with the cost of this, it is cheaper to import and blend than to try to burn the Indian coal on its own. Cleaning up coal combustion is thus a fruitful area for potential collaboration.

Moreover, according to Drage, there is already collaboration into ways of capturing CO2 from power stations without incurring an efficiency penalty. The nearest technologies to commercialisation are solvent-based scrubbers that dissolve the CO2in amine-derived solutions, he explained, but these would not be suitable for India. ‘There are a range of alternatives being developed, based on membranes, solid sorbents, and ionic liquids,’ said Drage. These sometimes work at high pressures or temperatures, increasing their thermal efficiency and allowing the process to be carried out in fewer steps. ‘Places such as NEERI, which is government-funded, are very involved in this sort of technology,’ he added, ‘but the systems are at a basic research level at the moment.’

Even so, he said, there is a strong feeling in India that public money should not be invested in CCS technologies. Drage understands this: ‘I feel there is a duty for the West; developed countries should develop these technologies,’ he said. ‘As we were responsible for the bulk of the CO2 emissions for the past two or three centuries, India sees that we should be the ones who spend money on remediating the damage we have done. People write research proposals saying that we should be selling this technology, but I don’t think that is the case. And we have to be seen to be acting before India and China take any action themselves. When the subject is raised at the working group meetings, the reaction tends to be: “Have you demonstrated this technology; have you built it yet?”’

And this demonstrates the truth behind the myth of the overwhelming emissions from India and China. While the attempts of the UK to reduce emissions might be dwarfed by the magnitude of the potential emissions of industrialising Asia, it is vital that research and development isn’t held up. Because if we in the West, whose lifestyles led to the rising atmospheric CO2 levels, do not show that we are willing to tackle the problem, why should the newcomers take it seriously?