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A storm brews over food, water & power



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Quentin Sommerville visits the Huitengxile windfarm, the biggest in Inner Mongolia

China is investing heavily in wind power, but coal is still the main source of energy, reports Quentin Sommerville in Inner Mongolia, as a new generation of hungry consumers rushes to grab the opportunity of a better life.

A hole in the roof of a yurt gives 10-year-old Na Na all the light she needs to enable her to do her homework.

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She lives in the portable, felt-covered, tent-like dwelling in the middle of Huitengxile wind farm, the biggest in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of northern China.

Her family are ethnic Mongolians and live here all summer long, offering tea to Chinese tourists who come to experience the beauty of these wild, sprawling grasslands.

Their three yurts lack even a single light bulb.

The tea is kept hot and plentiful on a coal-fired stove, ready for the thirsty tourists who pass by on horseback.

"Yes, it's hard work getting by without electricity," says Na Na's grandmother Ge Siksa.

"But it's only for the summer and next year we will install electricity," she adds.

When she grows up, Na Na wants to be a successful businesswoman.

"I want a television, a fridge, a car and an apartment," she says.

Spiralling pollution

Her tiny carbon footprint is about to get a lot bigger. And she is not the only one dreaming of a better life.

Na Na is part of a new generation of hungry consumers. Millions of people across this country are buying their first consumer goods.

All this means that by the time Na Na is in her 30s, China's energy needs are likely to have doubled.

The bad news for the rest of the world is that almost three-quarters of that power will come from polluting coal-fired power stations.

Huitengxile wind farm, the biggest in Inner Mongolia
China is investing heavily in wind power schemes throughout Inner Mongolia

In 2007, China overtook the US as the world's biggest polluter.

The country's powerhouse economy produced 1.8bn tonnes of carbon in 2007 from burning fossil fuels, according to estimates from according to the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

A recent study from the Institute for Energy Research, a US free-market energy think tank, said if China continues to place economic growth before environmental concerns, then its carbon output could hit 3.5bn tonnes by 2040.

This scenario has spurred the government onwards, with a big expansion of renewable energy.

Wind as the future?

The wind farm that surrounds Na Na's yurt stretches beyond the horizon, yet if Beijing has its way this will soon be dwarfed by a new generation of even bigger farms.

In the past few years wind power capacity has been doubling throughout China.

The country is now building six massive wind farms, each producing 1GW of power.

In comparison, the situation at the moment is that 35% of coal-fired power plants in China are operating at below 300MW each, seen as extremely inefficient.

Young girl outside her family's yurt at Huitengxile wind farm, Inner Mongolia
Like many, Na Na is keen to better herself - but at what cost to the planet?

The move to wind power will not be enough to clean up China's dirty skies - but it may help bring an end to rising carbon levels in the future - at least within Na Na's lifetime.

A recent report from a Chinese government panel of environmental experts says that an aggressive approach to combating climate change could see carbon levels peak in 2030.

That would be "difficult, but doable", says Jiang Kejun, one of the report's authors.

To this end China still needs to drastically cut its dependency on coal, or at least find a more environmentally responsible way of handling this plentiful but polluting fuel.

The country is both the world's largest consumer and producer of coal, it provides 70% of China's energy needs and there is little sign of that changing.

Millions here are in an unstoppable rush for a better life - fuelling it could end up overwhelming the planet.



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