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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 03:01 GMT
China's plans for a greener future
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Artist's impression of the Chinese city Dongtan
The new eco-city will feature a marina
Prime Minister Gordon Brown will see first-hand how China is promoting sustainable development on his two-day visit to the country.

He plans to visit an energy-saving power station, hear about an "eco-city" and discuss sustainable development with students.

But while Chinese leaders are willing to talk about sustainable development, changing the country's economy will be more difficult.

China is still a poor country and so fulfilling the economic needs of today is still more important than protecting tomorrow's environment.

Power station

One of the first stops on Mr Brown's tour of China will be a gas-fired power station that has been built in a residential area of Beijing.

The 3.5 billion yuan (250m) power project has been designed to cut down on noise and pollution. It is also screened from local homes and shops.

UK consultants Camco International are involved in the project, helping the power station earn extra money from selling carbon credits.

Central government officials understand the bigger picture, but local officials do not
Yang Ailun, Greenpeace spokeswoman in China

Carbon credits are emission reductions bought by western firms to offset against their own greenhouse gas emission targets.

The potential profit to be made from this trade encourages firms in developing countries such as China to invest in "clean" technology.

The Beijing power station could earn more than 100 million euros (74m) over seven years from the sale of carbon credits.

Mr Brown will also hear about the Dongtan Eco-City, which is being built on an island off Shanghai.

Carbon neutral

When it is finished, designers claim the community will be environmentally, socially, economically and culturally sustainable.

Dongtan will be as close to carbon neutral as possible, they say, and will produce its own energy using wind and solar power.

Power station in China
China is reported to be building two new power stations each week

These high-profile projects illustrate China's commitment to sustainable development, but there remain numerous hurdles to overcome.

Coal is one of them. It is the main source of smoke pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in China.

But the country has coal in abundance - it has 13 per cent of the world's reserves - and currently uses it for more than two-thirds of its energy needs.

Beijing recently admitted in a white paper that coal's central role as an energy provider would "remain unchanged for a long time to come".

Energy sources

This demand for coal is partly driven by China's desire to keep its economy expanding at its current pace of around 10 per cent a year.

The need to fuel its economy means China is also scouring the world for energy sources.

Over the last few years it has signed oil deals with Russia, Venezuela, Iran and many African nations to secure future supplies.

China is also stepping up the search for energy sources in its own vast territories.

Coal power station belching out smoke in Beijing
A coal power station belches out smoke in Beijing

One foreign oil executive working on a natural gas project in China's Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region said China wants the gas out of the ground as quickly as possible.

This is hardly the attitude of a country that is aiming for more measured economic growth.

Another problem is that central government policies on sustainable development, as in other areas, are often ignored by local leaders.

"Central government officials understand the bigger picture, but local officials do not," said Yang Ailun, a Greenpeace spokeswoman in China.

Local leaders, many with poor people to find work for, believe developing the economy is still far more important than protecting the environment.

In order to become sustainable, China's economy needs to move away from resource-intensive, export-driven industries that rely on cheap power and cheap labour, said Ms Yang.

"We cannot go on like this. There is an understanding that if we do not change, we will face a crisis," she added.

This is a message many government leaders in Beijing agree with.

But on his trip to China, the British prime minister will find out that while officials are committed to change, implementing that vision will be difficult.



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