When it comes to renewable energy, the Chinese government has paid great attention to its research and application since the 1980s, on environmental and other grounds. Next to hydropower, wind energy remains important. By the end of 2002, China had built around 30 wind farms, mainly in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Guangdong province. Counting smaller wind turbines, the total capacity from wind power was about 485 MW.
Solar and biomass energy also have been developed, with biomass on a larger scale. Currently the total annual output of agricultural residues is 700 million tons (equivalent to 210 Mtoe), 51% of which is used for fuel. About 250 to 300 million tons are consumed per year in rural areas, mainly for space heating and cooking.
Though renewable energy now plays a small role in China, it is important for improving environmental quality and people's living standards in rural areas. New targets for production have been set to 2010 in governmental guidelines.
Future directions emphasize improving the country's institutional management and organization of renewable energy development; expediting hydropower development, notably small and medium-sized projects; enhancing biomass production and use; developing solar technologies; expanding wind power to serve remote areas; and improving the financial framework, including questions of taxation, subsidies, and energy pricing for governmental and private sector involvement.
Chinese efforts are accelerating to address environmental protection and global climate change in the context of energy development. Coal's heavy use has resulted in serious consequences. Air pollution is caused by emissions of sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and dust, and studies show that 85% of sulphur dioxide and 76% of carbon dioxide emissions are from coal combustion. China is now the second biggest carbon dioxide emission country in the world, and studies indicate it could rise to the top in decades ahead.
Additionally, areas affected by acid rain have reached about 40% of China, ranking the country among the three main heavy acid rain regions, next to Europe and North America. About one-third of coal is consumed by thermal power plants, but only a small fraction of plants have been equipped with desulphurization technologies.
More efforts are being made to reduce sulphur and carbon emissions, through development of cleaner energy sources and technologies, improved institutional coordination , and governmental policies and directives.
China is also actively pursuing measures in cooperation with other countries to combat global climate change. A white paper on population, environment, and development - called "China's Agenda 21" - incorporates a priority programme of concrete, operational projects. Almost all projects are included in national or local government plans for social and economic development. Development of clean energy and production systems are placed in an important position.
As China moves ahead, many issues will influence the country's sustainable development. The importance of energy strategies cannot be over-emphasized. Apart from other major strategies, such as population control, promoting clean energy is the most important to curb pollution and improve standards of living. Efforts should be focused on energy efficiency improvements, energy substitution of coal with natural gas and nuclear power, and renewable energy development, especially in rural areas of the country.
Some new mechanisms, rules, and policies already are in place to steer China's transition from a centrally planned economy to a socialist market economy. On the energy front, further steps will be needed to assure a path of sustainable development.
Wei Zhihong is Deputy Director of the Institute of Nuclear and New Energy Technology, Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. His article is based on a more comprehensive working paper presented at the 1st KEIO-UNU-JFIR Panel Meeting of the 21st Century Center of Excellence Program on Economic Development and Human Security, held at Keio University in Tokyo in February 2004 and co-sponsored by the United Nations University and the Japan Forum on International Relations. The full paper is published in the proceedings of the meeting, accessible on the Internet at www.coe21-policy.sfc.keio.ac.jp/ja/event/file/s2-6.pdf. Author e-mail: Zhihong@dns.inet.tsinghua.edu.cn.