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From Thirsty to Thrifty: China's Battle for Sustainability
2006-09-30 00:00


By Yang Jianxiang, China Features

Through some nifty programming, the elevators of the Xinhua News Agency in Beijing skipped five floors on June 13. Staffers who worked on floors 2-6 had to take the staircase. The inconvenience lasted just one day, but its purpose was achieved: to remind people of the critical importance of conserving energy. Many other Beijing institutions under the central government promoted similar activities during the June 11-17 "Energy-Saving Week".

Energy supply is a mounting problem for China: many provinces have experienced power cuts, sometimes for several months a year. Rising oil prices are hurting drivers. Analysts traditionally highlight the need for increased energy imports, increased energy production or the development of alternative energies. Energy conservation offers another answer.

The energy shortage is the top issue, but China's worry list doesn't stop there. China might be a vast land with vast resources, but the country also has a vast population of 1.3 billion: the largest in the world. Per-capita resources often fall well below the world average: China's total reserve of resources ranks 3rd in the world. But the per capita figure, however, is 53rd: about half the world average. Water, for example, is only one quarter of the world average. By 2030 that figure will fall to 1,700 cubic meters, placing China among the world's poorest countries for water supply.

Of the 45 minerals of strategic importance, say experts, nine will enter seriously shortage by 2020 and 10 short supply. China's proven exploitable oil reserves can only last another 14 years at the current speed of extraction. A little frugality can make a big difference, especially in regions where China's utilization of resources is extravagant.

Efficiency of resource exploitation in China is fairly low: Average energy consumption per unit in eight industries including steel, coal mining, chemicals and construction materials, is 40 percent higher than the international standard. Industrial water recycling is by 15-25 percentage points lower than developed countries.

The gross recovery rate of minerals, about 30 percent, is 20 percentage points lower than abroad. Energy-saving housing in China accounted for only 3.5 percent of urban residential construction. The country's energy use for heating is two to three times higher than developed countries in similar climactic conditions.

In the old days of short supply, conservation was a necessity. Conservation today is the virtuous choice in an age of abundance. Nevertheless, with the human power of exploitation never greater and resources rapidly diminishing, frugality is again recommended - not simply as a virtue, but as a far-sighted choice -- a choice, perhaps, of no choice.

Awareness comes first. Chinese culture has a tradition for being thrifty. Many Chinese in their teens or older can recite the Tang Dynasty four-line verse "Every grain on the plate was irrigated by a farmer's hard sweat." Yet younger generations nowadays, influenced by some economists, seem to accept more readily the view that consumption -- even if wasteful -- supports production, while being thrifty is old fashioned and does not make a positive impact.

The government apparently wants traditional thinking restored. The state-owned media and social groups including NGOs want to re-create a social atmosphere that "hails conservation and denounces wastefulness". Some proposed the establishment of a thrifty society as a basic goal of national development, together with planned birth and environmental protection.

In June 2004, the general office of the State Council launched a nationwide campaign for resource conservation. The related official document announced a number of broad targets to be achieved within three years. Through doing a better job in making policies, regulations and technical norms and seeing that they are implemented, the document said, the country's energy consumption would be cut by 5 percent and water consumption 10 percent. Water recycling was expected to rise 5 percentage points.

In his Government Work Report delivered in early March at the annual legislative session of the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao put forward six points for economizing on use of resources in an effort to quicken construction of an environmental-friendly society.

A growing consensus among officials, entrepreneurs and scholars is that the establishment of institutional mechanisms is necessary for these efforts to have a long-term effect or any effect at all. The lack of such institutions has left most campaigns looking like just so much hot air.

China needs to establish proper mechanisms to ensure projects improve their standards in the use of resources, according to Feng Fei, director of the Industry Economy Research Department, State Council Development Research Center. Backward technology, products and equipment must be eliminated, and high-energy consuming products, such as motor vehicles, must meet strict standards before being allowed on the market.

The State Council document articulated an intention to clarify government officials' responsibility towards resources and make officials accountable for wrongdoings. Resource conservation might become a factor in assessing their work performance.

The greatest savings would come from a wholesale restructuring of industry, according to Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) academician Pan Jiazheng. China urgently needs to develop a recycling economy, emphasizing the comprehensive use of resources, he believes.

China's economic structure has big problems, agrees Feng Fei. The resource crisis is associated with rapid development of heavy industries and their wasteful consumption of resources. The rapid pace of urbanization has also played its part in driving up resource consumption: urban energy usage is usually 3.5 times higher than rural.

Aside from the quest for alternatives, technology can play a role in finding savings. According to Hervé Machenaud, president of EDF Group Asia Pacific Branch, the utilization rate of coal energy by coal-burning power plants in China is too low, only about 20 percent. Through adoption of advanced technology, it is possible to raise that figure to 50 percent.

On many occasions, the Chinese government has expressed support for developing new technologies, especially those that save resources or are related to renewable energies. Incentives in the areas of budget allocation, tax collection and price setting are being renewed or introduced to encourage such development.

Compulsory technical standards are expected to regulate economic development to achieve savings. In this regard, China needs to work out more specific energy efficiency standards for key industries and products, especially for buildings and automobiles.

If the motor vehicles on China's roads could match global standards of petrol efficiency and transportation optimized, according to one estimate, China's transport sector alone could save 87 million tons of crude oil by 2020: almost half the country's crude output.

"Construction of a resource-saving, environmentally-friendly society is a multi-faceted systematic project that requires the joint efforts of the whole society," said Wang Ping, chairwoman of the National Committee, China Union for Land Cultivation, Forestry and Water Resources at this year's session of the National People's Congress.

"Issues like frugal use of resources and protection of the environment should be viewed in a broad context. But the actual work begins with minor issues."

CAS academician Cheng Guodong cited as an example the unplugging of household electric appliances when not in use. Electricity used by such appliances in stand-by mode could amount to 10 percent of their total power consumption, he said.

A Xinhua news agency report dated August 11, 2005 gave an account of an unnamed city in East Central China's Yangtze River Delta area that provided round-the-clock watering for trees lining a boulevard. The reason was the trees, precious imports from abroad, were not used to the hot summer weather.

This incident took place within the 2004-2006 campaign period declared by the State Council for nationwide promotion of frugal use of resources, and immediately drew criticism from the readers following the Xinhua exposure. "The apparently inappropriate timing of the local government's wasteful act shows there is still a long, long way to go before everyone in the country will truly bear resource-saving in mind," a reader had commented.

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