'China's pollution increase is inevitable'

Posted: 25 May 2006

Although China is doing many of the right things, its pollution levels will inevitably rise says a leading Beijing-based independent energy consultant, Jim Brock.

The reason is simple, he says: "If China introduced the world's most modern energy saving and anti-polluting devices tomorrow, the absolute level of pollution in the atmosphere would still continue to rise."

Pollution in China
Pollution in China
Pollution in China.
China has been quite effective in introducing anti-pollution measures, especially compared to other developing areas such as Africa and Latin America, Brock told Finance Asia. But China's extremely fast growth rate and size means that it will be producing pollution at a rate unparalleled in history.

"China is doing in decades what it took the US to do in hundreds of years," he points out. One result is that China currently produces and burns two billion tonnes of coal per year. That will double in 15 years and double again 10-15 years after that.

"There is simply no way of knowing how the planet will cope with these levels of pollution," says Brock.As well as China's compressed growth curve, China's intense population concentration heightens the pollution problem.

Concentraded population

Thus, Beijing and the neighbouring city of Tianjin combined have the population of Australia. Chonqing is one of the largest cities in the world. And China's population is overwhelmingly concentrated on the eastern seaboard, with vast swathes of the inland practically depopulated. These clusters need to be serviced by gigantic power plants. China has 6GW power plants, while the biggest in the US is just 3GW. China also tends to have very large factories.

In contrast, the US benefits from a much more dispersed population and can therefore operate smaller plants whose waste is more manageable.

This explains the paradox that while the US is the biggest polluter in the world in absolute terms, it has much fewer pollution problems than China. Better technology and filtration also play a role.

Air pollution China
Air pollution China
The World Bank estimates that air pollution causes nearly 170,000 deaths in China every year.
Brock points out that the term pollution needs to be handled with care. Many people regard carbon dioxide (CO2) as a pollutant, but China has not classified it as such, and nor has any other country. CO2 is in fact merely the by-product of burning carbon and is in itself not in the least bit harmful to human health.

However, CO2 has been identified as probably being responsible for global warming, since it traps warmth within the world's atmosphere.

Methane ignored

One of the signs that the debate over the environment has been hopelessly politicised, according to Brock, is that methane (produced primarily by bovine flatulence) has 20 times the capacity of C02 for trapping heat. Yet so far there has been no movement to transfer cattle to a less 'windy' diet.

What is undoubtedly harmful to humans is the carbon monoxide, mercury, sulphur and nitrous oxide that burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil emit. It's these emissions that bring about the lung complaints and other ailments that can kill vulnerable old and young people in high levels.

Techniques such as coal gasification can produce clean energy in both CO2 and health terms. Their usage becomes more feasible as oil prices go up, points out Brock.

But Brock believes that large-scale pollution is inevitable. Causing mass to alter its state will always produce a by-product - otherwise known as pollution or waste.

Tipping point

"That's simple physics, and is a process known as entropy. And China is producing so many goods of all kinds that the process will throw off enormous amounts of waste in absolute terms, even though the country is introducing strict and effective emission laws," he says. This waste comes just as much from making a suit or building a factory as it does from fossil fuels.

"It's no good claiming to be green by buying a Toyota Prius or other environmentally-friendly car. The process of building a car actually produces a lot more CO2 than driving one," points out Brock.

Satellite image of thick layer of smog and smoke over China. July 11, 2002. © NASA
Satellite image of thick layer of smog and smoke over China. July 11, 2002. © NASA
Satellite image of thick layer of smog and smoke over China. July 11, 2002© NASA
The choice for the Chinese government is simple: to reduce economic growth, and thereby standards of living, or to keep pressing ahead. Brock is probably right when he says that for the average Chinese citizen environmental issues come well below increasing his standard of living in terms of priorities.

However, that could change if China saw a tipping point of the kind that characterised the rise of the environmental movement in the West, such as the terrible London smogs of the early 1960s, and the bursting into flames of the Love Canal in the Ohio Valley.

Shifting cost

"When it becomes clear that people's living standards are being significantly affected by pollution, then people will step back and reconsider growth," estimates Brock. While economists say that the pollution problem should, in principle, be solved by attributing ownership, this is quite hard to do with many kinds of pollution.

Much of the existing CO2 in the atmosphere was put out by the Europeans and the US hundreds of years ago, since C02 takes thousands of years to disperse. Similarly, harmful fossil fuel particles in the atmosphere are hard to trace back to their generators. As a result, it's tempting for countries intent on rapid growth to shift the cost of clearing up the waste to the victims, or indeed to later generations.

Ultimately, Brock says, the problem will solve itself. Populations stabilise, as in Japan and Europe, standards of living peak, and absolute energy usage goes down. The question is whether the planet - and in particular China's close neighbours - can survive the time that process will take to come to fruition.

Source: Finance Asia reported by INS

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