The green man’s burden

Why is Greenpeace calling on the UK to lecture nations like China, when the Chinese are cleaning up faster than us?

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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Heard the one about Britain setting China and other nations an example in how to lower greenhouse gas emissions? It’s our job, you see – or at least, that’s what Greenpeace UK tells us. The proposition would be hilarious if the nationalistic hubris was not so repulsive.

In 2007, Greenpeace International’s income was a cool €212million (1). The worldwide organisation is a modest but nevertheless hefty multinational, with all the bureaucracy that goes with that. Yet with the affected, hip informality that so often characterises environmentalist prose, a blogger given prominence on the Greenpeace UK website recently asked Ed Miliband, UK secretary of state for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), ‘Will Ed make Britain a global leader in climate change?’ (2).

Yes, Britain – the nation that, across the Channel, is widely ridiculed as the Dirty Man of Europe – should set the world an example in cleanliness and hygiene. Red-white-and-bluepeace UK insists that, ‘as the country most culpable for initiating the first coal age, which is largely responsible for the global warming we are currently experiencing, Britain undoubtedly has a responsibility to take a lead in developing practical solutions to solve the climate crisis’. Greenpeace and others hope in particular that Britain can show the way to allegedly dirty nations like China or India.

This doctrine of UK exemplary action is attractive for greens, who don’t want to be seen explicitly telling China, the world’s No.1 emitter of CO2 and SO2, what to do. But the dream that 1.3billion Chinese might one day look to Blighty as the way to go on emissions and energy policy is quite farcical. China might still be an unstable country, as witnessed in the events of recent days, but when it comes to production and innovation and even making itself cleaner, it is miles ahead of the UK.

In fact, the idea of the UK setting an example to China and the world is put forward so as to induce British householders to change their lifestyles, too. Reviewing Miliband’s plans to carry out a ‘consultation’ on carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other, equally half-baked proposals designed to check emissions from coal-powered electricity stations, Greenpeace found them ‘unclear’, but at the same time ‘a sizable step forward in government thinking’. No doubt it would approve of Miliband’s latest policy wheeze: a ‘new and improved’ carbon calculator ‘where people can log on and find out how to lower their carbon footprint’ (3).

Go to the DECC web page on the negotiations on climate change that are to be held in Copenhagen in December, and you’ll find that you can’t link to the 2MB pdf describing the policy, but you can link to a Greenpeace campaign demanding that Hu Jintao, Barack Obama and our very own Gordon Brown attend those negotiations in person (4). What deference ‘Ed’ pays to our Rainbow Warrior friends!

Greenpeace and the government have their minds made up. Ordinary Brits must behave properly at home and in their personal transport, and so take the high moral ground when developing nations debate the right successor to the Kyoto regime. But in the real world, China has already begun to set a whole series of examples to the West on how to tackle energy and climate change issues.

For many environmentalists, ‘clean coal’ is a contradiction in terms. Although this judgment is overhasty, there is certainly a long way to go before coal-fired electricity generation is made free of all pollutants – including CO2. However, if anyone is making progress toward cleaner coal, it is the Chinese.

It is true that many of China’s old coal-fired power plants are heavy polluters, and, of the one-in-two equipped with filters to deal with the sulphurous emissions that cause acid rain, many don’t always use them. Chinese state regulations on pollution are frequently ignored – with coal, as with other technologies. These are the facts of life in a hell-for-leather regime run by conservative functionaries. However, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has to concede that China’s four-gigawatt (GW) station in Yuhuan ‘sets a new global benchmark for the efficiency of coal-fired power plants’. More generally, a major IEA report adds that ‘much of the best equipment that the world has to offer can now be found in China’s mines and power plants’ (5).

More efficient burning of coal means lower emissions of CO2. At Yuhuan and elsewhere, China is leading the US in the deployment, in this cause, of ‘ultra-supercritical’ steam – steam used at very high temperatures and pressures – at the rate of one new coal-fired power plant a month. It is also ahead of the US in moving toward gasifying coal before burning it, another efficiency measure. And, with France, China has been the first to engage in a practical, if small-scale, demonstration of CCS – at a one-gigawatt coal-fired plant at Gaobeidian, suburban Beijing.

What about nuclear power? For Greenpeace International, it’s just an expensive waste of time: world greenhouse gas emissions must, it says, peak within six years, and nuclear’s contribution to combating climate change will only come ‘long after 2020’ (6). Yet the reality is that China’s nuclear effort is already beginning to make inroads on the country’s reliance on coal for more than 80 per cent of its electricity. Some predict that it will put more money into nuclear and renewables between now and 2020 than it will into coal- and oil-fired electricity. China is building more nuclear than the rest of the world put together (7). But of course for the know-alls at Greenpeace, this amounts to no contribution to tackling climate change.

China is indeed forging ahead in renewables. It has the largest wind turbine manufacturing industry in the world, with capacity expected to reach 12GW next year (8). This year, China should overtake the US as the world’s largest market for wind turbines, and, by the end of 2010, will have 30GW of wind energy – equaling the target it had for 2020 (9). In solar power it is a similar story. China intends to have at least 9GW installed by 2020 – three times its original target. Altogether, Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice-chairman of China’s national development and reform commission, believes that renewables could provide for 20 per cent of China’s energy consumption by 2020, equaling the European Union’s goal (10).

Britain is unlikely to meet that goal. Given that China is moving ahead of the US in energy technology, Greenpeace’s patriotic hopes that Britain can establish world leadership in emissions are parochial, utopian and ridiculous.

We don’t need what the government is pleased to hype as a ‘low-carbon economy’. We need a high-growth, high-energy economy, in which low emissions are merely part of a wider package – a package that will certainly include full-scale CCS, ambitious nuclear power, and an attempt to emulate China’s accelerated path to wind power, which is currently in some difficulty in the UK.

Neither Greenpeace nor Ed Miliband has high growth or a bigger energy supply as their goals. With them, progress in Britain can only be impeded.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen predicted that climate change would be a rich source of diplomatic squabbles. In 2007 he argued that coal was vital to Asia’s growth. Frank Furedi felt that Energise energises the debate on climate change. Rob Johnston said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy and Environment.

(1) Greenpeace International annual report 07, Greenpeace International, January 2009

(2) Will Ed make Britain global leader climate change?, Greenpeace International, 17 June 2009

(3) Road to Copenhagen: December 2009, Department of Energy and Climate Change

(4) Road to Copenhagen: December 2009, Department of Energy and Climate Change. The actual report The Road to Copenhagen: The UK Government’s case for an ambitious international agreement on climate change, 26 June 2009, is available here.

(5) See IEA sees China lead the way in developing new cleaner coal technologies, IEA, 20 April 2009; and Cleaner coal in China, IEA/OECD, 20 April 2008

(6) Nuclear Power: An Expensive Waste of Time, Greenpeace International, 3 July 2009

(7) Keith Bradsher, quoting a forecast by HSBC, in Green Power Takes Root in the Chinese Desert, New York Times, 2 July 2009

(8) Global Wind Energy Outlook 2008, Global Wind Energy Council, pp12, 19

(9) Keith Bradsher, quoting a forecast by HSBC, in Green Power Takes Root in the Chinese Desert, New York Times, 2 July 2009

(10) China launches green power revolution to catch up on west, Guardian, 10 June 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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