This blog follows on from the previous one highlighting 3 themes which give me hope for a cleaner future in China. The themes help explain the ‘why’, now time to focus on the ‘what’. The 10 below are in no particular order of importance..
1) ‘Last year China installed more new non coal power than coal power’. Ex colleague at BP Alternative Energy in China
Some of the stats for the amount of renewable energy China is installing are quite staggering. Last year China installed 13 Gigawatts (GW) of new wind power alone to reach a total capacity of 75GW. For context, that’s a very similar number to the UK’s entire electricity generation capacity. The solar energy market has just recently gone crazy at the country is well on its way to reaching the target of 21GW installed by 2015.
It means that China is now the number one producer and consumer of ‘alternative’ energy in the world. The physical manifestations of this are clear all over the country. Taking the train out west along the Silk Road is like taking a journey through one massive wind farm.
Solar panels on residential roofs are everywhere. Indeed my guide in Turpan (a relatively small town with a huge oil boom in Xinjiang) showed me the new block of houses he was moving into. All had solar panels as standard to provide almost 100% of not just their heating and cooling, but also their electricity. This was just being built as the norm – not necessarily because of any utopian environmental ideals.
The stat above, however, is also massively bolstered by the amount of hydro and nuclear also being installed. The ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ credentials of these are of course questionable, but in my view (not everybody’s) mark a step in the right direction away from coal.
2) Linfen – ‘the world’s most polluted city’
I went to Linfen in search of the ‘world’s most polluted city’. Instead, as well as having some highly unusual adventures (see the blog here), I found a city which was surprisingly green and with blue skies. Rather than experiencing a bleak environmental holocaust as I’d expected, I discovered the relative success story over the past few years of the city’s attempts to clean up its act. Many of the more polluting activities had been closed down, city parks had been restored and waterways cleared.
Instead of repeating it all here, have a looks at Tom Phillips’s excellent article on the subject in the telegraph if you are interested to know more.
In fact, being surprised by ‘blue sky’ days was not just confined to Linfen. My month in Beijing (mid May to mid June 2013) was also surprisingly blue. Of the 30 days in which I was there, I counted seeing blue on 16. And not just shitty murky blue. Proper turquoise blue! I cycled round the city quite happily without a mask for my month, sat outside in the evenings having a drink and got nicely sunburned from the sun which I’d been told I’d never see. Again, there’s a similar story for Beijing where much tougher environmental pollution laws (specifically regarding air pollution) are coming into effect – largely a result of the Olympic legacy I was told.
3) Tianjin Eco city
As well as cleaning up the existing cities, there’s also great potential being shown in some of the new ones being built too. One of the reasons I went to Beijing for a month was that I wanted to see the world’s biggest ‘eco city’ being built in nearby Tianjin. The plan is to build a model city for 350 000 people which will serve as a lesson into how a ‘sustainable’ community should be run. There’s a series of impressive milestones which will need to be reached to achieve this, and the plans sound fantastic. It’s also a high profile project backed by both the Chinese and Singaporean government. Have a look here for some of the details and tell me if it doesn’t sound brilliant.
And it’s not just a ‘PowerPoint project’. I went there and saw it being built with my own eyes. It’s actually happening. Although it might cost a bit more in the short run, the hope is that it can be a model city on which future designs can be improved upon.
4) The trains
To get to Tianjin from Beijing I took a quite amazing train. It travelled at up to 300kmh and connects the 120km between the 2 cities in under 40 minutes. There’s a similar high-speed rail between Beijing and Shanghai. You can travel from city centre to city centre – 1302km in under 5 hours. Total cost 518RMB (about £50). The cheapest flight I could find cost almost £100, and would actually take longer on a city centre to city centre basis (flight time + transfer time + check in time)
That train service really is brilliant, and the high-speed network is being developed all over the country. It’s going to revolutionise the way people travel the huge distances in China – all in a much greener way. It’s another example of the incredible engineering capacity in the country.
5) Electric scooters
Although they may be a complete hazard for the pedestrian, China has fully embraced the electric scooter (and other bizarre forms of motorised vehicle which ply the streets). These ‘silent assassins’ are everywhere, and show that making a switch to electric vehicles on an institutional scale is perfectly possible. Looking at the 2 biggest cities I visited, Kunming (population 6m) has electrified 100% of its fleet, whilst Beijing (population 22m) is around 50%
Footage from Kunming
‘There are 9 million bicycles in Beijing. That’s a fact’. Sang Katie Melua. Actually it’s not a (true) fact any more. There are actually 13 million according to the latest estimates. That’s almost 1 in 2 of the population owning a ‘green’ form of transportation.
China is the global capital of recycling. The planet’s garbage comes to China on big ships, where it’s broken down, sorted and repackaged ready for the world to use again. Indeed, around one third of Britain’s entire recyclable waste ends up in China, along with the entire US West Coast waste paper market
Recycling is evident both at this industrial scale, and also at a personal one. The man on the bicycle carrying a huge stack of cardboard he’s collected from around the city or precariously balancing hundreds of plastic bottles is a common sight (and hazardous for any fellow cyclist). Again, not necessarily out of any environmental ideals, this whole industry is exploding just because it makes sense economically.
8) Eating everything
There’s a lovely saying I came across whilst travelling through China. It goes ‘The Chinese will eat anything with 4 legs apart from a chair, anything which flies apart from an aeroplane and anything which swims apart from a submarine’. It means there’s comparatively little food waste. People eat everything on their plate. If you don’t, I experienced ‘doggie bags’ aplenty. We could learn some valuable lessons about this regarding food waste in the west. On researching for this I discovered that in the US alone, 40 million tonnes of food is wasted each year (40% of all food produced gets trashed). That’s enough food to feed the nearly 1 billion malnourished people in the world.
9) Some innovative seeds
There are some great small-scale innovative sustainable projects out there and some really innovative ways of getting them financed. Whilst in Beijing, I attended a talk on ‘crowdfunding sustainable development in China’. Specifically there were some guys looking to fund an organic bee farm using the Chinese crowdfunding sites ‘demohour’ and ‘dreamore’. For those of you not familiar with crowdfunding (or its most popular portal ‘kickstarter’), it’s a new way of funding projects. It involves funds being raised from people rather than traditional financial institutions. If you like a project/ business you fund it yourself in exchange for a novel gift or even equity. For example with the bee farm idea you’d get a load of delicious honey!
It’s really taken off in the US and Europe since the financial crisis and is representing a new form of emerging ‘moral’ or ‘social’ capitalism. It’s in its early stages in China, but there are some people out there who are trying to get it off the ground. It’s going to be small steps, but if it works it could offer a fantastic, inclusive way to fund sustainable projects in China and the wider world.
10) And lastly some inspiring individuals
I’d just like to draw attention to 2 people who I met, who represent the hope for a more sustainable future in China. The first is a young guy named Black. I met him on the train heading west to Xinjiang. He was the only other guy in my carriage who could speak English. Upon exchanging a few pleasantries we got chatting more in depth. He was 24 years old, recently graduated from university and was on his way alone to learn how to create an organic farm. He was part of the ‘no more environmental bullshit’ generation. He could do anything he wanted, but had taken matters into his own hands because he cared, had a dream and believed in a better future. Here he is in his own words….
Philip is perhaps the most inspiring individual I’ve met on the trip thus far. You may have seen me doing the ‘3 finger Wednesday’ sign on my Facebook recently – it’s all because of Philip. He is the founder of the ‘Peace Plus One World Sustainability Project’ and is involved with a number of projects to help promote sustainable development in China. He’s particularly keen on the concept of living a lifestyle of ‘health, happiness and sustainability’, which is what the 3 fingers is all about (it also has more practical interpretations associated with changing your diet, appearance and habits. Click here for more info
Philip and I discussed at length a fantastic concept he has been working on called ‘barefoot engineers’. It’s based on the barefoot doctors concept which saved the lives of thousands in rural China between the 1930s and 1970s and aims to apply the same principles to engineering a sustainable future in China. Specifically the idea is to match experts from China and internationally to work on sustainable projects. Early stages at the moment, but watch this space to see how it evolves.
All sounds great hey? If only it were so simple. Almost all the examples above have counter arguments which can quickly turn this hope into despair. That’s the subject of the next couple of blogs. Look out for them here…