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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 21:35 GMT
Addressing China's climate challenge
By David Shukman
Science correspondent, BBC News, Shanghai

David Shukman (BBC)
Current plans call for the opening of a new power station every week, and most of them coal-fired
China is on course to overtake the United States as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

It is building a new power station every week to meet a surge in demand for electricity. I'm in Shanghai, on my first visit to China, and I'm feeling the consequences.

China's industrial revolution has got me by the throat, literally.

I arrived here in Shanghai on Tuesday and I've been coughing ever since.

The streets are filled with a pale haze of fumes. Breathe too deeply and I feel light-headed.

Above me, a low grey cloud of contaminants hangs over the buildings. Worse, it seeps into the sinuses. I should buy shares in a tissue manufacturer or maybe start my own factory - everybody else is.

You feel the fever of China's boom most intensely on the highways. We get stuck in a five-lane jam, hemmed in between belching exhausts.

Through the windscreen of our mini-bus, I watch a truck worryingly overloaded with bright blue oil barrels. To my left a lorry carries new cars, and to my right another vast vehicle is weighed down by sheets of steel.

Others are loaded with chairs and rope and rubbish - everything sells.

Powered by coal

For mile after mile, we pass vast industrial buildings and endless rows of apartment buildings and construction sites. Between Shanghai and the city of Changshu, two hours' drive, there isn't a glimpse of countryside.

Shanghai is a city of 20 million people but its sprawl reaches for dozens of miles. The motorway is smooth. The authorities are expecting yet more growth. The country is hungry for energy.

Chimney (BBC)
We visit the new power station at Changshu. The lawns are neat but can't hide the giant chimney belching out a dark column of smoke.

The figures surrounding China's electricity industry are staggering. Last year alone China added the same amount of generating capacity as there is in the entire United Kingdom.

Current plans call for the opening of a new power station every week, and most of them coal-fired.

On the banks of the Yangtse, we watch a coal barge being unloaded. Everything is black with dust.

A conveyor belt, clattering continuously, carries the coal to the furnaces. China's coal reserves are big enough to last 200 years - coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels but no other energy source is so readily available.

'Clean' technologies

No wonder climate scientists bring every conversation round to this country and its energy plans. What happens here has the potential to undermine any of the reductions in greenhouse gases envisaged by the Kyoto Protocol.

I hear about the latest boilers at Changshu, designed by the British firm Mitsui Babcock. They burn hotter and therefore produce more power for less greenhouse gas.

The industry calls them "clean". But I keep watch on the smoke rising from that chimney. Genuinely clean generation from coal is a long way off, maybe 10-15 years.

A lot of power stations will be built in that time, a lot of greenhouse gas will rise into the atmosphere.

On the drive back to Shanghai I doze intermittently, shaken as our driver swerves between lanes.

The traffic is relentless. Night has fallen and the daytime haze has become a dense smog.

Huge neon signs loom out of the dark. China's last revolution shook the world. The current one is shaking it too, and it's only just started.

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