World’s biggest polluter spends £4bn a year on wind and solar power generation in single region as it aims to cut fossil fuel use.
The remote, wind-blasted desert of northwestern Gansu could be the most unloved, environmentally abused corner of China. It is home to the country’s first oilfield and several of the coalmines and steel factories that have contributed to China’s notoriety as the planet’s biggest polluter and carbon dioxide emitter.
But in the past few years, the landscape has started to undergo a transformation as Gansu has moved to the frontline of government efforts to reinvent China’s economy with a massive investment in renewable energy.
The change is evident soon after driving across the plains from Jiuquan, an ancient garrison town on the Silk Road that is now a base for more than 50 energy companies.
Wind turbines, which were almost unknown five years ago, stretch into the distance, competing only with far mountains and new pylons for space on the horizon. Jiuquan alone now has the capacity to generate 6GW of wind energy – roughly equivalent to that of the whole UK. The plan is to more than triple that by 2015, when this area could become the biggest windfarm in the world.
This is the other side of China’s development. Although it is the world’s biggest CO2 emitter and notorious for building the equivalent of a 400MW coal-fired power station every three days, it is also erecting 36 wind turbines a day and building a robust new electricity grid to send this power thousands of miles across the country from the deserts of the west to the cities of the east.
It is part of a long-term plan to supply 15% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. Most of that will come from nuclear and hydropower, but the government is also tapping the wind and solar potential of the deserts, mountain plateaus and coastlines.
The scale of investment has led to hopes that China may emerge as the world’s first green superpower. This is premature. Breakneck economic growth has left much of the country enshrouded in a murky grey smog. But the environmental crisis is so bad that it is a driver for change.
Carbon dioxide emissions have more than doubled in the past 10 years, taking China past the US as the world’s No 1 source of greenhouse gases. Dirty smokestacks and illegal discharge pipes contribute to the hundreds of thousands of annual premature deaths from pollution related diseases. Environment ministry statistics suggest that 40% of river water can make you sick...................