Climate change

Glaring inefficiency

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2007, 12:00am

The Riviera is one of many artificial suburban communities on the outskirts of Beijing in Shunyi district. Reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting dropped into the middle of Beijing's rural suburbs - with a 'Disney Main Street USA' tackiness - by day, it has the stifling cleanliness of a hospice ward. But every night, it is lit up with fairyland splendour, putting to shame even the Rockefeller Centre during Christmas week.

There are now literally hundreds of these kitsch communities surrounding Beijing, and tens of thousands spreading across China. While the taste of Chinese today apes the big and bright, the cost in energy inefficiency of so much brightness may herald an environmental disaster in the coming years.

Beijing's network of highways is constipated by massive traffic jams, and it chokes under a thick film of carbon-concentrated smog. Yet, this is only the tip of the capital's wasteful and polluting biosystem.

Mark Dembitz, vice-president of Carbon Capital Beijing, has pioneered the introduction of non-pollution technology in China as part of a sophisticated international trading of carbon credits. He explained how such a project works. 'We completely create the project for a polluting factory that has no incentive not to pollute. We say, 'let us come in and give you a piece of technology to reduce pollution'. Then we will ask them to use it. We will teach them how to tip waste, install gas connections [and] capture methane out of landfill pumps through a generator which creates electricity.'

This helps on two fronts. Instead of methane escaping from the landfill, it is captured, thereby creating electricity from a clean source to be sold back to the grid or used in creating carbon credits. The landfill process benefits from upgraded technology, and training is provided in how to 'tip' waste in more efficient ways, to maximise land use.

The tipping policy reduces the amount of smell for locals - a common problem when sewage backs up in the cities. Everyone wins.

'Most polluting carbon emissions actually come from inefficient insulation of buildings,' Mr Dembitz said, not cars and air transport. Certainly, Beijing would take an Olympic gold medal for excessive construction of inefficiently insulated buildings.

It is a complete disaster, and the city will pay for this in the future. So, too, will its people, in terms of the huge number of pollution-related diseases, the cost of which could break Beijing's overburdened and hopelessly corrupt medical system.

'As for lights, if you are powering lighting systems from solar sources, then there are no carbon emissions,' said Mr Dembitz, who is on the front line in promoting more efficient alternatives. Through the work of a small group of like-minded people, new awareness is being created.

'They are trying to be more careful about what they are building,' Mr Dembitz observes. 'But if you are taking energy from the grid created by coal, then an increase in demand will rack up the amount of coal-fired plants needed, and subsequent pollution.'

Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in China right now, as the growth-at-all-costs approach of bureaucrats outweighs the need to assure people that it can actually be sustainable. Then there are its toxic side-effects.

To keep up with electricity demand, the nation is now building one 500-megawatt coal-fired plant every two weeks.

China is naturally poor in energy resources. However, the one resource it has is coal, and it has billions of tonnes of it.

Unfortunately for China, and the rest of the world, coal is probably one of the dirtiest forms of energy imaginable. Moreover, it is one of the most inefficient.

This formula will be disastrous for China's - and the world's - environment, if it is not changed soon.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation