Food For Thought: What is the point of doing anything, when China opens a new power station every week?


 What is the point of doing anything, when China opens a new power station every week?  


“The defining challenge of our age”, is how Ban Ki-moon, the united Nations General Secretary, describes climate change. It will affect all our lives, whether we take an interest or not. The biggest need is for society’s climate of opinion to change.

China is making a huge effort to raise the living standards of its people. With limited oil reserves, it is turning to coal for its energy. Clean coal technologies, where the carbon is sealed underground, are expensive, but China says it will pursue this option if wealthy western nations take the lead. So far none has done so. This attitude shows the importance of leading by example: China won’t do it unless our governments do it, and our governments won’t do it because “it will make our industry uncompetitive”. We, the electorate, must show by example that we consider the fight against global warming to be more important than commerce. Each of us is at the beginning of a chain that could influence first our own reluctant governments and then global agreements.

Three-quarters of global warming is due to the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) when fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – are burned. On average each person in the world is responsible for 4.6 tonnes a year. In Britain each person is responsible for 12 tonnes. A Chinese is below average at 4.2 tonnes (actually less, because many of the goods they make are exported so emissions should be counted as the responsibility of the country of destination) and an Indian is well below average at only 1.4 tonnes. An American is responsible for a whopping 20.2 tonnes (26 tonnes if you take into account the goods made abroad and imported). It would be reasonable for China to claim that its emissions per person should be allowed to rise in order to lift its struggling population out of poverty – particularly since the west has benefited historically from huge emissions over many years and is responsible for 80 per cent of the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

A change in attitude is just beginning. In the USA, due to pressure from the public, over 30 states and 600 cities have adopted policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions. WE are all in this together. China is taking global warming seriously. It is phasing out incandescent light bulbs, it is building the world’s most carbon-neutral city with more to follow, it has banned plastic bags in major cities, it is putting immense research into photovoltaic (PV) cells (see page 48) and other renewable technologies that convert the Sun’s energy into electricity, and it is turning out thousands of graduates with expertise in these fields. Its State Council is struggling to restrain provinces and municipalities from pursuing development regardless of the effects. China’s efforts to combat global warming put western governments to shame. C S Kiang, who advises the Chinese government says, “Humanity made a mistake 200 years ago and now east and west does not matter – everyone is involved. China’s problems are the problems of the world. If we do not solve them together the world is going to be in a bad shape.”

Human society, with its politics, world conferences, competition, economic imperatives and broken promises, could be seen as a super-tanker speeding towards the rocks and unable to stop.

But then think of those flocks of starlings you see in the evening sky:  suddenly, without warming, they change direction. Our own society may suddenly change direction when strange events, or even the media, move us to a tipping point where we become alarmed that we are at the mercy of the most finely balanced and infinitely fragile of all components of this plenty – the atmosphere.  

Alastair Sawday (2008: 9-10) What About China?

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