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China confronts global warming dilemma

China, the world leader in both economic growth and carbon emissions, faces the dilemma of how to respond to the challenges of global warming while not harming its robust economy.

By Christina LarsonInternational Consortium of Investigative Journalists / November 12, 2009

Two cooling towers are demolished at a coal-burning power plant on Oct. 28 as part of an effort to improve energy efficiency in Xinxiang, in central China's Henan province. To combat global warming, China hopes to derive at least 15 percent of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020.




China awoke to climate change with a storm. It was late January 2008, a time when people across the country were busily gathering recipes, stocking fireworks, and preparing to welcome relatives to celebrate the Lunar New Year. But suddenly, severe ice storms brought much of the nation to a standstill. For two weeks, fierce winds, sleet, and snow downed power lines, shuttered businesses, and razed more than 200,000 homes across southern and central China.

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Hundreds of thousands of travelers who had been headed home to see families were stranded on icy rail platforms. Cities struggled to provide power and water to residents, and snow blanketed the Taklamakan desert. Even the bright lights of Shanghai briefly went dark. All told, more than 100 people were killed.

China’s worst storm in decades was, according to United Nations scientists, an illustration of what a changing climate may herald for the future. As such, it was a tipping point in the country’s environmental awareness.

“For the ordinary people,” says Hu Kanping, editor of the Environmental Protection Journal, “it was a historical moment for them to know what is climate change.”

In an editorial comparing the storm to Hurricane Katrina, the influential Chinese business magazine Caijing wrote: “This painful experience ought to set us thinking about how we can better pay Nature the respect she deserves and should make us listen more attentively to what science tells us about how climate change leads to natural disaster.”

The storm was also a moment for China’s leaders to consider the consequences of the extraordinary growth of the country’s economy, which has expanded by 9.7 percent annually over the past 30 years.

Now the world’s top global exporter of manufactured goods, China is also the world’s largest importer of tropical woods and its largest producer of cement, feeding a breakneck pace of construction. Every year, 8.5 million farmers leave their villages for fast-growing cities. The McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that by 2030, China will have 1 billion urban residents.

Although the benefits of China’s economic expansion have been immense — lifting a staggering 630 million people out of poverty — so, too, has been the environmental impact. In 2006, Forbes magazine found that all 10 of the world’s most polluted cities were in China. The water in about half of China’s major waterways is unfit for drinking or even agriculture.

Even as China has invested heavily in alternative energy systems, its primary source of fuel is still overwhelmingly coal. The World Bank estimates [pdf] that China’s polluted water and air result in about 750,000 premature deaths each year.