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The peak oil crisis: The Beijing Syndrome

As the term “China syndrome” has already been taken, I am terming what is happening in the country these days the “Beijing syndrome,” for China’s capital seems to be shaping up as the epicenter of a great upheaval to come. A “syndrome” is a group of symptoms that, when taken together, point to a more serious underlying disease; which, of course, is what we see emerging in the contention between China’s rapid growth and its environment.

Thirty-five years ago, after China got over its bout of “cultural revolutions” and “great leaps forward” to become serious about economic growth, numerous reforms were undertaken. China’s leaders obviously got something right, for their economy grew in the vicinity of 10 percent or better for most of the intervening years and became the envy of the world – at least until recently.

We all know that economic growth requires the consumption of energy at roughly the same pace as GDP increases, and indeed this is what has happened in China. Although the Chinese built lots of dams for hydropower, drilled lots of oil and gas wells, and in recent years imported lots of oil, some 70 percent of the primary energy that powers its rapidly growing economy comes from extremely dirty coal. Indeed since 2000, China’s coal consumption has increased threefold and is now over 4 billion short tons a year, nearly half the world’s coal consumption. Beijing plans to increase this consumption to 4.4 billion short tons in 2015. They are going to need it because they apparently plan to build another 360 coal-fired power plants in the foreseeable future.
 
China is also on track to consume about 10 million b/d of oil this year, slightly more that half that of the US. The Chinese, however, currently are selling themselves 20 million new cars and trucks a year (and there are not many trade-ins) so unless there is a major turn of events they will be up with the US’s oil consumption in another decade or so.
 
All this, of course, ignores the dark side. Like many other industrially developing countries in the last 200 years, China largely ignored the ever-accumulating environmental problems brought about by its policy of growth-at-any-cost. Five years ago during the Beijing Olympics, China’s government was forced to take draconian measures to insure that the air was at least minimally acceptable for athletes and visitors, but after the event restrictions were relaxed and growth of coal-fired boilers and motor vehicles continued unchecked.
 
China now has a number of very serious environmental problems that, when projected ahead for a few decades, likely add up to a country that will be partially uninhabitable for its 1.3 billion + citizens. These problems can be summed up as air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution, desertification, and climate change. The litanies of woes in each of these areas are too long to recount here but they add up to a growing numbers of premature deaths from cancer, respiratory and other illnesses, and the forced movements of peoples from their traditional homes.
 
Someday historians might tell us that the trigger for a major change in China’s environmental policies was the great smog of January 2013, when for 19 days the air was too unsafe to venture outdoors. The interesting thing about air pollution is that it affects all living things that breathe – from the most elite to the most humble, with only a handful able to enjoy the luxury of filtered air. When the troubles become this widespread, and without an immediate solution in sight, a paradigm change has occurred.
 
In the last two months, numerous top Chinese officials have stated that there must be a change in policy. At the recent National Peoples Congress fully a third of the delegates refused to rubber stamp meaningless environmental reports – a unprecedented development showing how seriously China’s elite is taking this matter.
 
For now, Beijing has responded to its pollution crisis with the obvious steps. It is closing down coal-fired boilers in the capital. It is nearly impossible to license a new car in the city (electric ones are OK, however). Cleaner diesel is to be produced. The share of hydro, wind, and solar power is to be stepped up. Energy efficiency is to be increased. The question is whether these are Band-Aids for a country that still seeks to grow its GDP at 8 percent a year into the indefinite future.
 
Much of what is being proposed will only clean up the dirt in the air and will do little about carbon emissions, which threaten to eventually result in flooding of China’s coastal cities. Polluted water is still a bigger problem. About 40 percent of China’s farmland is irrigated from underground aquifers, about 90 percent of which are believed to be polluted. While recent surveys of water and soil pollution are treated by the government as “state secrets,” Beijing recently admitted that there are “cancer villages” with extremely high rates of the disease due to nearby industrial pollution.
 
In the US and Europe, the most egregious forms of air and water pollution as seen in China today were largely dealt with through regulation 40 or 50 years ago. The carbon emission question, which is more subtle as the effects are latent, continues to be a matter of debate in the US. In China, however, there are obviously serious problems staring everyone in the face, especially the growing middle class.
 
Currently we have vows from the new leaders that something will be done. The problem will come when reducing pollution to safe levels clashes with the cherished 8+ percent growth rate. Given new and different technologies, it might be possible to have both someday; for the immediate future it seems unlikely that the measures announced so far will reverse the numerous problems. Beijing has a syndrome that could engulf us all.

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