Pollute first, clean up later: Could we avoid this development model?

Published on Thursday, 21 February 2013

Published by Aiming Zhou on Thursday, 21 February 2013

A view of smog, haze in the city’s skyline in People’s Republic of China.
A view of smog, haze in the city’s skyline in People’s Republic of China.

Resource depletion and environmental pollution are serious issues in developing Asia. This was well illustrated in January of this year when northern People’s Republic of China (PRC) suffered its worst air pollution on record. The level of pollution moved many to question the old development model of “pollute first, improve later”. 

Smog in northern PRC, not only in Beijing, but also in Tianjing, Shiqiazhuang, Jinan and other areas, can be traced to the burning of coal for power and heat generation and from the emissions of private vehicles whose numbers have grown alongside the number of middle class urban residents.

PRC is locked into the use of coal and oil to power its fast growing economy. To uncouple its development from dependency on fossil fuels, PRC must transition to a low-carbon path of growth. Solutions lie in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and the country has yet to tap into all of its indigenous renewable resources, such as solar and biomass. PRC's 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) indicates the following targets for solar and biomass, by 2015:

21GW solar power generation capacity installed and 50 million ton of coal equivalent (tce) biomass utilized (including 13GW biomass power generation 22 billion cubic meter biogas, 10 million ton biochar and 5 million ton bio-fuel), comparing to currently installed 7GW solar as of 2012 and 22 million tce biomass utilization as of 2010. 

Increasing energy efficiency in various sectors is the unpicked "low hanging fruit" of PR China's economy, with the potential to save enormous amounts of both energy and money. The 12th Five-Year Plan also aims at reducing the energy consumption per RMB10, 000 of GDP to 0.869 tce, a 16 percent reduction from 2010 level and a 32 percent reduction from 2005 level. 

To achieve these ambitious targets, Government of PRC is taking a wide range of measures and policies to address these issues. Let us hope PRC can make these targets by consistently and continuously scaling up clean energy development towards a sustainable, and livable future.