The Unacceptable Price of China's Progress
China just soft landed a spacecraft on the lunar surface, but such an achievement comes at a very high cost to its people and, ultimately, the planet.
Yesterday, China achieved a scientific and technical milestone only two other nations in the world have accomplished: they soft landed a rover spacecraft called the 'Jade Rabbit' on the Moon's Sea of Rainbows. They now join the old Soviet Union and the United States in leaving their technological fingerprint on the lunar surface.
Back on Earth, NASA's Terra satellite passed high over China on December 7, 2013 and sent back the below image. The white areas in the satellite snapshot are clouds. The hazy gray is air pollution stretching from Beijing far south to Shanghai - a distance of at least 750 miles - where officials closed schools, delayed flights, and sensors recorded PM 2.5 particulate levels peaking at 602.5 micrograms, twenty-four times higher than World Health Organization guidelines considered healthy.
The dichotomy between the awesome technical achievement of China soft landing a spacecraft on the Moon and the level of air pollution its energetic people and industry back on earth have created could not be any more pronounced. And in a way, the rest of the world shares some of the blame because we have facilitated and exacerbated the problem by shifting so much of our energy hungry manufacturing to Asia, where political corruption and lax environmental laws allowed companies, foreign and domestic, to pollute with impunity. Not only is much of China's air unimaginably polluted so that it shows up from space, but something on the order of 75% of all its rivers and lakes are similarly polluted.
And China isn't the only perpetrator. Smoke from deliberately set forest fires used to clear land for logging and palm oil tree plantations covered much of Malaysia for weeks on end earlier this year.
The problem has become so acute that a design firm in Bangkok, Thailand, itself considered Asia's 13th most polluted city developed the concept for an electric bicycle that - in theory, at least - would help clean the air as the rider pedaled along. Exactly how the Lightfrog Creative and Design Company e-bike would work hasn't been entirely worked out yet. The company has design sketches and a mockup or two, according to Fast Company's Co. Exist write-up . Presumably, as you ride, air is taken in at the handlebars. Some portion of the electric energy in the bike's battery is used to run the filter system with the cleaned air emitted from the bike's cross bar. It's a little less cumbersome looking than the DIY system Beijing expat resident Matt Hope created for his bike. That system requires he wear a fighter pilot helmet and oxygen mask while he rides.
But in practical terms, we have to do more than just fantasize about pollution-eating bicycles, especially if you live, work, or visit China -- or other heavily polluted parts of the planet.
Several years ago, EV World's editor in chief published an April Fool's Day news item that claimed to report the Chinese government had officially banned the production of all internal combustion engines for motor vehicles. Henceforth, all light duty vehicles and buses would be electrically-powered. The country hasn't actually reached that point, but its edging ever closer to it. Beijing and various other Chinese city administrations have issued a string of edicts, regulations and incentives to reduce the pollution caused by automobile and truck exhausts, including generous grants for electric cars.
Yet, efforts to increase the number of privately owned EVs and other 'new energy' vehicles on the road in China, which remains heavily dependent on coal not only for power generation but for winter residential heating, have been largely ineffective. Chinese fiscal conservatism - Chinese families have an average savings rate of 38%, among the highest in the world -- and an understandable hesitancy to invest in what is considered not only expensive but also unproven technology has largely stymied government efforts to get people to shift away from gasoline and diesel motor vehicles.
Where it can control matters a bit more, Beijing's administration just announced that it is replacing 80% of its buses with 'green' ones: 4,058 electrically-powered and 7,185 running on compressed natural gas. It is also restricting the number of motor vehicle licenses it is issuing, with the exception of electric models.
The government isn't just worried about auto exhausts. The future of its entire economy is at stake because it is rapidly facing a serious water shortage, one that not only impacts the availability of water for its population, but also for its energy sector. Those very same electric buses, electric cars and electric mopeds on which so many Chinese are dependent, are themselves largely dependent not only on the nation's coal reserves, but also its water supply.
Writes ClimateWire, "The nation consumed more than 3.43 billion tons of coal in 2011, according to official figures, and half of that was burned for power generation." Further, 85% of that coal is in the north of the country, where 23% of its water resources are located. The article also notes:
As the majority of the Chinese coal industry is built where coal reserves are, and every part of the industry -- from coal mining to preparation to power generation -- requires intensive water usage, those already water-scarce regions are suffering from an increasing water shortage.
Investment analysts at global banking giant, HSBC are starting to warn, ""Hypothetically, if coal mining in China were severely constrained from a lack of water from say 2030, it could reduce our valuation on China Shenhua by about 26 percent and our valuation on China Coal by about 45 percent."
Besides affecting the economic valuation of a handful of coal companies, of far greater economic and social consequence is the health impact of all that air and water pollution on its population. Greenpeace estimates, based on data it obtained from Chinese sources, that in 2011 alone some 260,000 people died as a direct result of the pollution released by those power plants. In the USA, the number of its citizens having their lives similarly cut short by coal plant pollution is estimated a 13,200.
China's solution is to gradually move away from coal to less polluting forms of energy including wind, solar and nuclear power. It no long permits the construction of new coal-fired power plants unless they incorporate less polluting energy technologies. But even if those plants -- and there are some 570 coal power plants proposed, under construction, or commissioned -- use state-of-the-art pollution reduction systems, they still will cause, by Greenpeace estimate, 32,000 premature deaths, 42,000 hospital admissions and 250,000 doctor visits, along with adding some 39,000 children and 7,400 adults who are expected to suffer from asthma.
The Chinese people are paying a heavy price for their technological progress, one that could very well explode in the face of its political leadership and economic elite if not resolve equitably and quickly. The consequences of that 'hard landing' could shake the very foundations of a increasingly fragile planet both within and well beyond the Great Wall.
Originally published: 15 Dec 2013
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