Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

China burning coal while developing green energy

By Damian Grammaticas
BBC News, Beijing


China's use of coal could double or even triple

Rising from the bowels of the earth are giant trucks laden with coal. One after another they lumber past. Just the wheels of each truck are double the height of a man.

The engines roar as these massive machines grind up the road that climbs up from the bottom of the Pingshou open cast coal mine. We're in China's northern Shanxi province, the heartland of its huge coal industry. A bitterly cold wind whips through the air.

The enormous mine they're digging here must be one of the biggest man-made holes in the planet. The mine is big enough to fit a small town into. All around diggers claw at the earth, giant trucks growl to and fro.

If you want to know where many of today's carbon emissions come from, this is one place to look.

Energy use soaring

China's massive use of coal is what makes it the world's biggest emitter of carbon. Coal supplies over two thirds of China's energy needs. Some 40% of the coal mined on the planet is dug out of the ground in China.

"We have enough coal here to last 90 years," Mr Huang, a supervisor at the mine tells me as we bump along the rough road cut into the side of the pit.


And that's the real question. What will happen to China's coal industry in the next 20 to 30 years, because China's use of coal could double or even triple. If that's the case, then what every other nation does about climate change may not matter if China doesn't clean up its act.

The nearby power station burns 20,000 tonnes of coal a day. It was built from a Czech design dating back to the 1970s.

China has pledged to produce power more efficiently, saying it will reduce carbon intensity by 40% from 2005 to 2020. But that doesn't really change the path China is already taking, and in the coming years its carbon emissions will continue to rise substantially.

The reason is that as China gets richer energy use is soaring. Jeff and Ada Qian both work as IT specialist for international firms in Shanghai. At home in their flat they and their 10-month-old son Tim enjoy many of the comforts of modern life. They have air conditioning, a car, a fridge, a washing machine and two televisions.

Our emissions must continue to go up... we should be allowed to emit more than the rich world
Pan Jiahu
Adviser to the Chinese Government

"I feel so far our life is good," Jeff tells me, "but I think people always have ambitions, you always want to have more. If I have more money I want to have a better car, a bigger apartment."

Today perhaps one third of China's 1.4 billion people live like this, and many of the rest aspire to.

"I think many of China's people would like a lifestyle like us," says Ada. "I don't think that means we should copy the lifestyle of the West. Maybe we can find cleaner sources of energy."

'Need to develop'

But in its megacities, such as Shanghai, China is copying the West, urbanising on an incredible scale. In the coming 30 years China is planning for 450 million more people to move from the countryside to the cities.

In places like Shanghai and Beijing, carbon emissions per head already rival the West's. And if China's emissions keep rising on current trends, every single Chinese person may be emitting more on average than every European by around 2030.

Graphic: Carbon emissions

Pan Jiahua is an adviser to the Chinese government on climate change. He says China's emissions must be allowed to rise above the developed world's on a per capita basis.

Mr Jiahua says the rich world has built the infrastructure it needs and must now make major cuts to emissions. But as long as China is still developing it's emissions need to keep going up.

"We need to develop so we need lots of energy. Our emissions must continue to go up. Developed countries must bring their emissions down, perhaps even to zero. So we should be allowed to emit more than the rich world," he says.

"Eventually CO2 emissions will stabilise and all countries will emit about the same per person."

Green energy

China is searching for clean energy. It wants to lead the world in green technologies. In the vast, flat Gobi desert in China's far west it's busy building the world's biggest wind farms. The scale dwarfs anything in Europe or America.

world's biggest wind farm in china

We watched as a giant rotor was lifted by a huge crane and fixed into place high above the ground on one of the turbines. Teams of men pulled on ropes to ease the vast blades into position.

Abdul Ali is leading the crew who are installing the wind farms. They are putting up two new turbines every three days. Eventually a massive area of desert will be peppered with them.

The wind farms being built here in western Gansu province will produce as much electricity as 16 coal-fired power stations. "This is the Three Gorges Dam of wind power," Abdul Ali says proudly.

But when the winds drop, the turbines slow to a stop. Even here in what is one of China's windiest places, it's clear wind can't be relied on to power China's needs the way coal can. So if China continues to rely on coal, and if more than one billion Chinese end up emitting more carbon per head than Europeans, the future for tackling climate change could be bleak.

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