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Global Warming

Burning Issue For Beijing

Underground coal fires are blazing out of control on the mainland, contributing greatly to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions

Tim Johnson – SCMP | Updated on Nov 17, 2008

The barren hillsides give a hint of the inferno underfoot. White smoke billows from cracks in the earth, venting a sulfurous rotten smell into the air. The rocky ground is hot to the touch, and heat penetrates the soles of shoes. Beneath some rocks, a red glow betrays an unseen hell: the epicentre of a severe underground coal fire.

“Don’t stay too long,” warned Ma Ping, a retired coal miner. “The gases are poisonous.”

Another miner tugs on the sleeve of a visitor.

“You can cook a potato here,” said Zhou Ningsheng, his face still black from a just-finished shift, as he pointed to a vent in the earth. “You can see with your own eyes.”

The mainland has the worst underground coal fires of any place on Earth. The fires destroy as much as 20 million tonnes of coal annually, nearly the equivalent of Germany’s entire annual production. The costs go beyond the waste of a valuable fuel, however.

Scientists identify uncontrolled coal fires as a significant source of greenhouse gases, which lead to global warming. Unnoticed by most people, coal fires can burn for years – even decades and longer – producing carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that warm the atmosphere.

“Coal fires are a disaster for all of humanity. And it’s only due to global warming that people are finally beginning to pay attention,” said Guan Haiyan, a coal fire expert at Shenhua Remote Sensing and Geo-engineering.

The rising demand for coal to satisfy a worldwide hunger for energy has given way to increased mining, and a proliferation of fires in coal seams and abandoned mines. The mainland, which has tripled coal production in the past three decades, has mobilised thousands of firefighters to combat the 62 known coal fires scattered across the north.

Major fires have been extinguished. However, Dutch scientists scribbling back-of-the-envelope calculations say that fires on the mainland may still be the cause of 2 per cent to 3 per cent of the world’s annual emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. They call for greatly increasing efforts to extinguish the mainland’s fires – and those in places such as India, Russia and Indonesia – as a practical step to fighting global warming.

It’s a relatively cheap way to stop greenhouse gas emissions,” said Horst Rueter, a German geophysicist who is the scientific co-ordinator for a Sino-German initiative to combat coal fires.

Dr Rueter said that mainland coal fires accounted for at least half the global emissions from coal fires around the world, making them a steady source of pollutants.

Others said that such runaway fires, while significant, paled beside overall emissions from the United States, a fossil-fuel glutton that may give off a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions.

Coal fires can occur naturally and are not a new phenomenon. Australia’s Burning Mountain has smouldered for thousands of years. An underground coal fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, began in 1962, eventually opening sinkholes that threatened to gobble and incinerate pets and children. Centralia became a ghost town, and experts say the fire there may burn for a century or more.

At the Rujigou coalfield in the Ningxia Autonomous Region of western China, fires have burned since the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Legend has it that miners who were angry over not being paid started a coal fire more than a century ago. “It was industrial revenge,” Mr Guan said.

Many coal fires begin spontaneously when underground seams come in contact with the air – either through fault lines from earthquakes or mining activity – generating a chemical reaction that can slowly heat and ignite the coal. Human activity can intensify the fires, however, especially when workers abandon dust-filled mines without sealing the airshafts, allowing temperatures to build.

The mainland’s coal fires stretch across a northern belt that runs nearly 5,000km from east to west. A cluster of them are in Ningxia and a little to the north in Inner Mongolia , at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The concentration of coal fires in the region puts it in the running for one of the world’s worst ecological disasters, and only humans can extinguish the problem.

“These fires just don’t go out,” said Anupma Prakash, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks expert on mapping coal fires.

Coal fires pollute the air with putrid smoke and wreak havoc on water supplies and above-ground ecology, creating “heat islands” where little vegetation can grow, not even hardy grasses. Wildlife flees.

“There used to be rabbits and pheasants around here, but not any more,” said Liang Guobao, who oversees a generator facility at the San Kuang coal mine in the sprawling Wuda coalfields in Inner Mongolia. His generator powers fans to clear the air in underground shafts.

Mr Liang walked with a visitor around the barren landscape, pointing out places where the ground had collapsed after subterranean coal fires ate away seams and left empty caverns.

“The mine started here in 1958, and almost immediately the fires began,” Mr Liang said.

Coal fuels the mainland’s roaring economy, powering its factories but also taking a human, social and environmental toll. The mainland uses coal for 70 per cent of its primary energy needs, far higher than the world average of 40 per cent. Mainland coal production topped 2.3 billion tonnes last year, equalling the output of the US, Russia, Australia and India combined, according to Yang Fuqiang of the Beijing office of The Energy Foundation, a San Francisco group that promotes energy efficiency.

Even as it provides power, coal exploitation leaves a trail of deaths.

Last year, 3,786 mainland miners died in accidents, a rate 70 times higher than for miners in the US.

Coal burning is a principal cause of air pollution on the mainland, where 400,000 people die each year from illnesses – mainly heart and lung diseases – related to that pollution, the World Bank estimates.

For those who grew up in the region, the scarring of the hilly environment from unseen coal fires is part of the landscape. Mr Ma recalled walking in the hills as a youth and discovering long, deep fissures in the earth.

“We wouldn’t know how deep they were. If we dropped a stone in, we could hear it bounce off the walls … but we couldn’t hear it hit bottom,” Mr Ma said.

As much as 40 per cent of the mainland’s coal comes from small local mines rather than big state-owned enterprises. Small operators follow a pattern when their mines catch fire.

“When they have a fire, they just leave and go to another place,” said Li Jing, the director of the Institute of Resource Technology at Beijing Normal University.

Over the past decade, Beijing has put far greater emphasis on attacking coal fires. The work is labour intensive, costly and dangerous in its initial stages. The blazes can reach underground temperatures of 700 to 800 degrees Celsius, imperiling firefighters.

“First, they shape the terrain and cool down the surface so the heavy machinery can work,” Dr Rueter said. Teams drill holes down through the burning coal in 50 to 60 spots and inject water for several months “to cool down the entire rock volume”.

Later, they may make up a slurry of sand, water, cement and some chemicals, and pour it into the holes. Once the fire is out, the entire rock area must fall below 70 degrees to ensure that the coal does not re-ignite. A layer of clay is put on top and trees planted to gauge whether the fire has begun anew.

Dr Prakash, the coal fire expert in Alaska, said she thought that worldwide efforts to combat coal fires had fallen short. “The coal exploration is more intense than the coal firefighting efforts,” she said. “In the areas I have seen – China, India, Indonesia, South Africa – they haven’t got any better.”

Beijing is sensitive to charges that it may not be doing enough to put out the fires. Fourteen months ago, it announced with much fanfare that it had finally put out the Rujigou coal fires in Ningxia that had burned for decades. A Xinhua report said the state had spent US$53 million over a decade to douse the fires.

A visit to the site, however, showed that the fires weren’t completely extinguished.

“The leaders said they’d put out all the fires,” said one miner, who preferred to remain anonymous.

There were many reasons that the work was never completed, he said. “One reason is that the investment to put out the fires was not enough. And the leaders changed too frequently.”



Beijing Defends Energy Policy After Scathing Report

Agence France-Presse in Beijing | Updated on Oct 28, 2008

Beijing on Tuesday defended its energy policy a day after three influential green organisations criticised its dependence on coal.

“The Chinese government attaches great importance to the development and exploration of clean energy,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

“It has been making great efforts to increase the share of clean energy in the energy mix.”

A report commissioned by Greenpeace, the Energy Foundation and WWF on Monday said China’s dependency on coal was creating hidden environmental and other costs worth more than seven per cent of its annual gross domestic product.

The unaccounted costs equated to an estimated 1.7 trillion yuan (US$250 billion), and would be even higher if the impacts in terms of climate change were included, according to the report.

China depends on coal for about 70 per cent of its booming energy needs, which is one factor in its huge increase in greenhouse gas output in recent years.

Ms Jiang said China had implemented a range of policies to tackle the problem.

“We have reissued a renewable energy law and encouraged development of all sorts of renewable energies, including green energy, solar energy, water and hydro energy, thermal energy,” she said.

“We also attach importance to the clean use of coal, and we have done a lot to control the emission of pollutants produced in burning coal.”

Still, China ranks alongside the United States as one of the world’s two biggest emitters of the gases that are blamed for climate change.

Ms Jiang said China would continue to step up efforts to develop renewable energy.

Should There Be Laws To Control Light Pollution?

SCMP | Updated on Oct 31, 2008

It seems that people are becoming more aware of the effects of climate change.

We appreciate the threat posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet although people have this awareness, many do little in the form of practical action to curb the effects of global warming.

We must address environmental issues, because the problems we create are damaging Hong Kong’s reputation.

For example, regulations must be introduced to control the problems caused by light pollution. You see brightly lit advertising signboards. They remain switched on throughout the night, which is unnecessary.

We must have laws that ban this waste of energy.

Mandy Chan Man-hang, Lai Chi Kok

Reliance On Coal Hurts Climate Change Fight

Shi Jiangtao – SCMP | Updated on Oct 30, 2008

China’s reliance on coal for economic growth has made it difficult to curb growing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the central government’s first policy statement on climate change.

“Developing the economy and improving people’s lives are imperative tasks currently facing China,” the white paper, issued yesterday, says.

“However, its coal-dominated energy mix cannot be substantially changed in the near future, thus making the control of greenhouse gas emissions rather difficult.”

The paper highlighted the dilemma faced by China, with social ramifications if it curbed economic growth and the grave environmental consequences of fast development, such as frequent natural disasters, ecological degradation and shrinking harvests.

“Climate change has already brought real threats to China’s ecological system and economic and social development,” said Xie Zhenhua , deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission.

The 44-page paper lists various adverse consequences of climate change on agriculture, river and sea pollution and social and economic sectors.

“Extreme phenomena, such as high temperatures, heavy precipitation and severe droughts, have increased in frequency and intensity,” it says.

If not alleviated, the consequences will reduce grain output, shrink lakes and wetlands, cause desertification of grasslands and livestock epidemics, and accelerate glacial retreat and sea-level rise.

However, it is unlikely that China will break its addiction to coal, the cheapest and most plentiful energy source in the country, any time soon. Coal still fuels about two-thirds of China’s energy needs.

The mainland has set ambitious targets to cut energy waste by 20 per cent and pollution by 10 per cent by 2010. Authorities have closed thousands of small coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

Last year, its use of renewable energy – including wind, solar and hydroelectric power – amounted to about 220 million tonnes of coal equivalent, which equals cutting 500 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

With the promotion of renewable energy, the proportion of coal in the energy mix has fallen by more than 2 per cent in the past three decades, the paper says.

Pollution-reduction Goals Still Far Away, Admits Official

Agence France-Presse in Beijing | Updated on Oct 29, 2008

Mainland is having trouble meeting energy efficiency and pollution-reduction goals, but the government remains determined to reach the targets, a top official said on Wednesday.

Vice-Minister of Planning Xie Zhenhua also said Beijing will consider controls on the greenhouse gas emissions of its worst polluting industries if the rich world will hand over clean technology to keep poorer nations competitive.

China has a target of reducing the amount of energy it consumes per unit of gross domestic product by 20 per cent over the five years to 2010.

It has also vowed to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions, a key air pollutant, and chemical oxygen demand (COD), a measure of water pollution, by 10 per cent each from 2005 levels.

“Our work over the next three years will be very difficult, but the [government] will not waver in assessing the situation in accordance with these goals,” Mr Xie said.Mr Xie also signalled Beijing’s first nod of approval to the “sectoral approach” to containing industrial emissions at the launch of a policy paper on how the country plans to tackle global warming.

Mainland officials have previously denounced the “sectoral approach” as a scheme for rich, high-tech nations to gain a competitive edge by imposing extra costs on rising challengers in sectors, such as steel, concrete and power.

But Beijing is pushing rich nations to transfer more pollution-cutting technology to poorer nations undergoing emissions-intensive industrialisation, and Mr Xie suggested a focus on polluting industries could satisfy both sides.

“China believes that using a sectoral approach is an important measure for implementing emissions reductions in every country. We can decide this for industries with high emissions levels and then transform the technology that these industries use to cut emissions,” Mr Xie said.

“But in whose hands is this technology? Most of it is in the hands of developed nations. If they take this technology and give it to developing nations, it will without a doubt be able to resolve a large amount of the greenhouse gas emission problem.”

Varying proposals for a sectoral approach to curbing emissions involve setting fixed caps, broader reduction guidelines or incentive systems for firms.

Mr Xie did not delve into such specifics or say which industries could be targeted.

But he stressed that up to a quarter of the country’s emissions bill came from manufacturing goods for export, and urged consumer nations to shoulder some responsibility for this pollution.

“Because we are at the low end of the industrial chain, transferred emissions from goods manufactured from exports stand at between 14.5 per cent and 24 per cent of the total.”

“We are footing other people’s bills,” added Mr Xie, who is vice-chairman of the energy and climate-change policy making National Development and Reform Commission.

Mr Xie said he would like rich nations to spend the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of their economy each year on funding cleaner technology to help poor countries skip the dirtiest phase of industrialisation and urbanisation.

He cited the complicated transformers and bearings used in wind turbines as an example of a key technology that could help mainland rapidly expand an already booming sector that makes a clear contribution to cutting emissions.

True Cost Of Coal To Nation ‘Far Exceeds’ Market Price

Shi Jiangtao in Beijing – SCMP | Updated on Oct 28, 2008

The environmental and social costs of China’s reliance on coal as an energy source have been grossly underestimated, a joint study by environmentalists and economists says.

For each tonne of coal consumed last year, China paid 150 yuan (HK$170) extra in environmental damage, according to “The True Cost of Coal”.

The report, commissioned by Greenpeace, the US-based Energy Foundation and WWF, was written by prominent mainland economists.

The report estimated that the true cost of coal in China last year was about 1.75 trillion yuan, nearly 7.1 per cent of gross domestic product that year.

The figure would be even higher if the impact of climate change were included, according to the report.

“Environmental and social damages are underestimated for using coal in China, as a result of market failures and weakness in government regulations,” said Mao Yushi , lead author of the report and founder of the privately funded Unirule Institute of Economics. “China must count these external costs and make the coal price reflect its true costs.”

The so-called external costs were air and water pollution, ecological degradation, increasing health costs, mining accidents and infrastructure damage.

It also took into account the price distortion caused by government regulations, such as land-ownership policies and poor worker safety and compensation systems, which keep the cost of coal down. Coal accounts for 70 per cent of China’s primary energy consumption and is the biggest single source of air pollution across the country.

It causes 85 per cent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 67 per cent of nitrogen oxide emissions and 70 per cent of airborne particles. Mining has contaminated water, degraded land and caused massive land subsidence.

Coal is also responsible for China’s enormous carbon dioxide emissions, which are believed to have made the nation the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.

Quoting the report, Yang Fuqiang , chief representative of the mainland office of the Energy Foundation, urged Beijing to impose energy and environmental taxes.

His view was supported by Professor Mao, whose study showed that the introduction of a coal tax would raise prices by up to 23 per cent and reduce consumption by about 12 per cent.

“But the taxation measures would have little impact on China’s economic growth,” the report said. “On the contrary, it would make China more competitive globally in the long run and increase China’s social wealth by 942 billion yuan.

“The government of China has the opportunity to make a real improvement to the environment by reforming the current coal pricing system.

Yang Ailun , Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaign manager, said recognising the true cost of coal would create incentives to developing cleaner, sustainable energy.

Should There Be Laws To Control Light Pollution?

SCMP | Updated on Oct 25, 2008

You see neon lights all over Hong Kong. It does not matter where you are – Mong Kok, Central or Causeway Bay – you cannot escape them.

These neon [and other kinds of] lights sometimes illuminate advertising billboards and your attention is drawn to the product being promoted. But they are also a major cause of light pollution.

A simple solution would be to introduce laws restricting the size of neon lights and the length of time they can be turned on.

However, there is a problem with passing such laws. Hong Kong is famous for its neon lights. Many tourists look forward to seeing the harbour at night, with its neon signs on top of the high-rise buildings.

If strict regulations are imposed, this spectacular view could disappear and some people might decide not to visit Hong Kong.

Economic factors are always considered to be a high priority, but what about environmental factors? Light pollution may not be a serious problem for some residents, but it does adversely affect animals. Nocturnal animals are especially sensitive when it comes to the intensity of some lights.

If lights are too bright, it can affect their life cycle. For example, it must be very difficult for owls, which hunt when it is dark.

I think we do need to enact some laws to control this form of pollution. Apart from helping animals, it can ensure those residents who are affected by strong lights can enjoy a good night’s sleep.

B. Leung, Lai Chi Kok

I strongly support the idea of expediting legislation to ease the severe light-pollution problem in Hong Kong.

The reason is twofold. First and foremost, we cannot tolerate a deteriorating situation.

Even at midnight in Mong Kok, you can still see neon lights on. It does not even feel as if it is night. How can residents have a proper night’s sleep with all these billboards lit up?

These upmarket fashion firms which use the lights to advertise their products do not seem to care about our Earth. They care more about making a profit than trying to be environmentally friendly.

The government should take prompt action now to stop shops from keeping exterior lights on at night and lit-up billboards.

Our officials can no longer turn a blind eye to this problem.

Zalon Wong, To Kwa Wan

I strongly support the introduction of laws to control this form of pollution.

Many lights in the city are kept switched on when they are not needed, for example to illuminate advertising billboards throughout the night.

How many people will actually look at these billboards at 1am?

The excess of neon lights, floodlights and other lights near residential buildings is not good for the city. They consume a lot of electricity which in turn increases carbon dioxide emissions and these emissions are a cause of global warming. They disturb residents living nearby who have difficulty sleeping.

Even badly designed street lights are a problem. They should be modified so the beam of light is directed to the ground and not upwards. I am interested in astronomy and it really saddens when my efforts to stargaze are impeded in the name of development. This is not progress, it is just the building of more flats so property developers can line their pockets. I believe a reasonable regulation should be introduced, which would mean all floodlights on buildings (for example IFC and Bank of China) should be switched off after midnight.

Virginia Yue, Tsuen Wan

Hong Kong Night Light Pollution Under The Spotlight

James Pomfret – Reuters | Wed Oct 22, 2008

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong may be known as the Pearl of the Orient for its bright-light, big-city allure, but the ubiquitous practice of keeping neon signs and buildings blazing all night has come under growing fire from green groups.

One of the world’s most densely built-up and populated metropolises, Hong Kong is also one of the most brightly lit.

From bustling streets bathed in an array of neon signs to gargantuan spotlight-strewn advertising hoardings to massed light-specked skyscrapers twinkling off the waters of Victoria harbor at night, the glow over the sleepless city makes it difficult to glimpse stars in the night sky.

In an era of growing green consciousness and global warming fears, environmentalists are increasingly critical of this ostentatious display, calling it as unnecessary and wasteful.

“The trend is getting worse and worse,” said Hahn Chu, the environmental affairs manager for Friends of the Earth: “Hong Kong always thinks the brighter things are, the more prosperous we seem, but people often forget that we’re wasting energy.”

While Hong Kong doesn’t have compulsory measures for lights out, a recent public opinion poll on energy conservation by the Council for Sustainable Development found 71 percent of over 80,000 people backed turning off neon lights in the small hours.

In 2008, the city’s environmental protection department received some 50 complaints about light pollution, up from the 40 cases received in 2007, with neon signs posing a growing nuisance for the public.


A massive neon sign advertising luxury brand Prada was found to be one of the worst offenders in an online poll, spilling intense white light onto a near-deserted Central street until till 5 a.m. every day.

“This is flamboyant wastage and creates light pollution,” one respondent was quoted as saying.

A spokesperson for Prada in Hong Kong said it had noted the concern, was “actively seeking a solution and we will reduce the lighting,” she added without giving specifics.

In an initiative named “Dim It Please,” Friends of the Earth called on retailers and building owners to set a lights-off time after business hours to conserve energy and reduce emissions.

The group says Hong Kong’s electricity consumption grew 18 percent between 1997-2006, outpacing local population growth of 5.9 percent in the same period.

Light pollution however, is by no means unique to Hong Kong.

NASA photographs of global “artificial night sky brightness” display a conspicuous “luminous fog” around much of Western Europe and North America as well much of Japan, Taiwan, while Hong Kong shows up as a bright spot in the southern China region.

Global experts say light pollution has become so pronounced that two thirds of the U.S. population and about half the EU are no longer able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang seems to be seeing the light.

In his annual policy address last week he said the government would “assess the problem of energy wastage of external lighting and study the feasibility of tackling the problem through legislation.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by David Fox)

© Thomson Reuters 2008 All rights reserved.

Report Warns Of Greenhouse Gas Leap

Chris Buckley – Reuters | October 22, 2008

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s greenhouse gas pollution could double or more in two decades says a new Chinese state think-tank study that casts stark light on the industrial giant’s role in stoking global warming.

Beijing has not released recent official data on greenhouse gas from the nation’s fast-growing use of coal, oil and gas. Researchers abroad estimate that China’s carbon dioxide emissions now easily outstrip that of the United States, long the biggest emitter.

But in a break with official reticence, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and other major state-run institutes have concluded that, without dramatic counter-steps, their nation’s emissions will tower over all others’ much sooner than an earlier government forecast.

The projected leap in emissions underscores the pressures that China will face in looming climate change negotiations, and the immense challenges it would face in meeting any commitments.

By 2020, China’s burning of fossil fuels could emit carbon dioxide equal in mass to 2.5 billion metric tonnes of pure carbon and up to 2.9 billion tonnes, depending on varying scenarios for development and technology. By 2030, those emissions may reach 3.1 billion tonnes and up to 4.0 billion tonnes.

That compares with global carbon emissions of about 8.5 billion tonnes in 2007. Emissions are also often estimated in tonnes of Co2, which weighs 3.67 times as much as carbon alone.

The report does not give its own estimate of China’s current Co2 emissions, but cites data from a U.S. Department of Energy institute that put them at 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon in 2004.

The U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimated that the United States emitted about 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon in 2007, compared to China’s 1.8 billion tonnes.

The “China Energy Report” for 2008 warns of drastic risks from inaction in the face of this projected growth, and yet also says economic development must not be hobbled.

“No matter how historical responsibility is defined, our country’s development path cannot repeat the unconstrained emissions of developed countries’ energy use,” states the Chinese-language report, which recently went on public sale without fanfare.

“Therefore, we must soon prepare and plan ahead to implement emissions reduction concepts and measures in a long-term and stable energy development strategy.”

The main author, Wei Yiming, has participated in a U.N. scientific panel to assess global warming. He was not immediately available for comment on the findings and why they appeared now.


The study may add to contention over China’s response to global warming at a time of accelerating international negotiations. Beijing will be at the heart of efforts to forge a treaty next year to succeed the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012.

The European Union this week said developing countries should accept a 15-30 percent cut in their greenhouse gas emissions from “business-as-usual” levels.

But under the Protocol, a U.N.-led pact, poor nations do not assume targets to cap emissions. And Washington has refused to ratify Kyoto partly because it says the treaty is ineffective without Beijing’s acceptance of such mandatory caps.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap solar radiation, heating the atmosphere and threatening to stoke worsening drought, disrupted rainfall and more wild weather.

But China points out that per capita emissions of its 1.3 billion people are much lower than rich countries’ and says the developed countries bear overwhelming responsibility for the dangerous accumulation of greenhouse gases.

The new study backs that argument.

Beijing officials have also often said they will not sacrifice hard-won economic development to greenhouse gas caps.

For China, “relative to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, economic development is even more important,” the study says.

China Can Forge Ahead In Developing Renewable Energy

Green power

Michael Richardson – Updated on Oct 03, 2008 – SCMP

The latest tally of greenhouse gas emissions blamed for warming the world shows that China has emerged as the top polluter, ahead of the United States, by an increasingly big margin. Released last week, the scientific findings of the Global Carbon Project show that, last year, more than half the world ‘s emissions came from the high-growth economies of developing countries, led by China and India, and that this share is rising because emissions from developed economies are growing less fast.

The project’s Australia-based executive director, Pep Canadell, said that China alone accounted for 60 per cent of the emissions growth last year. This was due to its heavy reliance on coal for generating electricity and oil for transport fuel. Yet the world’s most populous nation is also a global leader in harnessing renewable energy, particularly hydro, wind, solar and biomass power.

As recession and the credit crisis in the west crimp lending and investment in relatively expensive alternative energy, can China seize the initiative and keep funding its drive to become less dependent on fossil fuels? This assumes, of course, that China’s banking system will remain immune from the contagion afflicting the US and Europe. If normal lending continues and business can take advantage of incentives put in place by the government, China could forge ahead of competitors in developing renewable power. This would strengthen its energy security and international efforts to prevent disastrous climate change.

China invested more than US$10 billion in new renewable energy capacity last year, second only to Germany, according to the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. Most of the money was for small hydropower projects, solar hot water and wind power. Meanwhile, annual investment in large hydropower schemes continues at a somewhat lower level. A renewable energy law, effective from the start of 2006, requires power grid operators in China to buy electricity from registered producers of renewable energy. It also offers tax incentives and subsidies to promote investment in the sector.

China gets 8 per cent of its energy and 17 per cent of its electricity from renewables – shares that will rise to 15 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively, by 2020, if the government’s target is met. The European Union, which wants to be the world’s pace-setter in combating climate change, is aiming for a somewhat more ambitious target of getting 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

China is not alone in the developing world in seeking a more sustainable energy future. As a group, developing countries have more than 40 per cent of the world’s renewable power capacity, over 70 per cent of solar hot-water capacity and 45 per cent of biofuels production.

In China, wind power is the fastest-expanding technology for generating electricity. With many onshore turbines working, the first offshore wind farm started in November.

China is also a manufacturing powerhouse for solar photovoltaic energy, third only to Japan and Germany. It is the world’s largest market for solar hot water, with nearly two-thirds of global capacity. More than 10 per cent of Chinese households rely on the sun to heat their water. When Chinese firms turn to exporting, the lower costs of their units – some seven times less than in Europe – could reshape global supply and demand.

However, Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, says Beijing’s efforts to rein in rash lending and curb inflation are hurting financing for wind power projects in China and may prevent it from emerging as the world’s fastest-growing wind energy market.

A report last year from consultants Frost & Sullivan cautioned that China’s wind and biomass industries were not nearly as developed as their western counterparts. As a result, they had “less experience in installing, maintaining and servicing renewable facilities”, wrote analyst Linda Yan. A key restraint on growth of China’s renewable energy markets was a lack of homegrown technology and dependence on imported equipment, she added.

Even if Beijing meets its renewable energy target for 2020, it will rely heavily on fossil fuels. That is a problem not only for China but also for the world – it is expected to overtake the US soon after 2010 as the world’s top energy-consuming nation.

Michael Richardson is an energy and security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.