Page last updated at 08:37 GMT, Friday, 23 October 2009 09:37 UK
China's march towards green revolution

BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin reports on the ongoing race to build bigger but not necessarily better houses in China's countryside.

Riding a bicycle is often a good way to get an idea of what's really going on in the countryside, so I hired a shocking pink ladies' bike - the one with the best brakes - to take a tour through the limestone karst landscape around the village of Yangshuo near Guilin.

Rural houses near Yangshuo
Local farmers are engaged in a competition to build the biggest house

At first sight it looked a typical agricultural scene from a developing country, with paddy fields, labourers working by hand, little evidence of farm machinery and almost no private cars.

But the bricks and mortar in the villages told a different story. There are tall, deep houses springing up everywhere, hinting at a wealth that otherwise remains hidden.

My guide told me the homes belong to farmers - all of them engaged in a beggar-my-neighbour competition to build the biggest and swankiest house.

At first I simply didn't believe him. I suspected that the money was flowing into the villages from the tourist yuan, which pour into Yangshuo along the scenic River Li.

But he assured me that he and his siblings had clubbed together to build his parents a new house where they live in the hills an hour's drive away.

At first they had planned a bungalow but the parents pleaded for a second storey or their neighbours would - literally - look down on them. The offspring reluctantly acquiesced.

Compromised construction

We stopped in one village where the Tao family are proudly erecting a five-storey home they'd been saving up for over the years.

They are farmers. They own their own land but don't consider themselves rich, although this area is much wealthier than rural areas in Western China where poverty still prevails.

The Taos' home will be worth about £50,000, they say. They don't have any other trappings of wealth.

 Mrs Tao, houseowner
Mrs Tao's house has has single-glazed windows and no insulation

In the cities, as an environment correspondent travelling in China, I'd probably be looking for signs of obviously polluting consumption to film for TV - SUVs, bright lights, electronics, power stations.

But what's happening here in the countryside is just as significant because the energy consumption patterns embedded in the Taos' home will be locked in for the next 50 years.

For a start there's the energy-intensive cement it uses - China is said to gobble more than half the world's cement.

But then there's the operating of the building. It has draughty single-glazed windows. And the builder Mr Li looks mystified when I ask him about insulation.

It gets steaming hot here in summer and goes down to 5C in winter. But there's no need for any insulation, he says. You just turn on the electric fire or the air conditioning.

The central government in Beijing understands the scope of the problem with poorly constructed new buildings and is trying to lay down new codes of practice to improve efficiency. But the message hasn't filtered through to Mr Li yet.

There's an old Chinese saying: the Emperor is far and the Mountains are high. You can fly over the mountains nowadays, but here at least the principle still holds true.

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