Environmental News From China

I was unable to access this blog last week while I was in Changchun—sorry!

But I’m back in Singapore now, so here’s some news, mostly from the 2 August 2011 edition of China Daily, the government’s official English newspaper. As you’ll see, they’re pretty concerned about environmental problems. But to balance the picture, here’s a picture from Changbai Mountain, illustrating the awesome beauty of the parts of China that remain wild:

The Chinese have fallen in love with cars. Though less than 6% of Chinese own cars so far, that’s already 75 million cars, a market exceeded only by the US.

The price of real estate in China is shooting up—but as car ownership soars, you’ll have to pay a lot more if you want to buy a parking lot for your apartment. The old apartments don’t have them. In Beijing the average price of a parking lot is 140,000 yuan, which is about $22,000. In Shanghai it’s 150,000 yuan. But in fancy neighborhoods the price can be much higher: for example, up to 800,000 yuan in Beijing!

For comparison, the average salary in Beijing was 36,000 yuan in 2007—and the median is probably much lower, since there are lots of poor people and just a few rich ones. On top of that, I bet this figure doesn’t include the many undocumented people who have come from the countryside to work in Beijing. The big cities in China are much richer than the rest of the country: the average salary throughout the country was 11,000 yuan, and the average rural wage was just 3,600 yuan. This disparity is causing young people to flood into the cities, leaving behind villages mostly full of old folks.

Thanks to intensive use of coal, increasing car ownership and often-ignored regulations, air quality is bad in most Chinese cities. In Changchun, a typical summer day resembles the very worst days in Los Angeles, where the air is yellowish-grey except for a small blue region directly overhead.

In a campaign to improve the air quality in Beijing, drivers are getting subsidized to turn in cars made in 1995 or earlier. As usual, it’s the old clunkers that stink the worst: 27% of the cars in Beijing are over 8 years old, but they make 60% of the air pollution. The government is hoping to eliminate 400,000 old cars and cut the emission of nitrogen oxide by more than 10,000 tonnes per year by 2015.

But this policy is also supposed to stoke the market for new automobiles. That’s a bit strange, since Beijing is a huge city with massive traffic jams—some say the worst in the world! As a result, the government has taken strong steps to limit car sales in Beijing.


In Beijing, if you want to buy a car, you have to enter a lottery to get a license plate! Car sales have been capped at 240,000 this year, and for the first lottery people’s chances of winning were just one in ten:

• Louisa Lim, License plate lottery meant to curb Beijing traffic, Morning Edition, 26 January 2011.

Why is the government trying to stoke new car sales in Beijing while simultaneously trying to limit them? Maybe it’s just a rhetorical move to placate the car dealers, who hate the lottery system. Or maybe it’s because the government makes money from selling cars: it’s a state-controlled industry.

On another front, since July there has been a drought in the provinces of Gansu, Guizhou and Hunan, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which is home to many non-Han ethnic groups including the Hui. It’s caused water shortages for 4.3 million people. In some villages all the crops have died. Drought relief agencies are sending out more water pumps and delivering drinking water.

In Gansu province, at least, the current drought is part of a bigger desertification process.

Once they grew rice in Gansu, but then they moved to wheat:

• Tu Xin-Yi, Drought in Gansu, Tzu Chi, 5 January 2011.

China is among the nations that are experiencing severe desertification. One of the hardest hit areas is Gansu Province, deep in the nation’s heartland. The province, which includes parts of the Gobi, Badain Jaran, and Tengger Deserts, is suffering moisture drawdown year after year. As water goes up into the air, so does irrigation and agriculture. People can hardly make a living from the arid land.

But the land was once quite rich and hospitable to agriculture, a far cry from what greets the eye today. Ruoli, in central Gansu, epitomizes the big dry-up. The area used to be verdant farmland where, with abundant rainfall, all kinds of plants grew lush and dense; but now the land is dry and yields next to nothing. All this dramatic change has come about in just 50 years—lightning-fast, a mere blink of an eye in geological terms.

Rapid desertification is forcing many parties, including the government, to take action. Some residents have moved away to seek better livelihoods elsewhere, and the government offers incentives for people to relocate to the lowlands Tzu Chi built a new village to accommodate some of these migrants.

Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organization with a strong interest in climate change. The dramatic change they speak of seems to be part of a longer-term drying trend in this region. Here is one of a series of watchtowers near Dunhuang, once a thriving city at the eastern end of the Silk Road. I don’t think this area was such a desert back then:

Meanwhile, down in southern China, the Guanxi Zhuang autonomous region is seeing its worst electricity shortage in the last 2 decades, with 30% of the demand for electric power unmet, and rolling blackouts. They blame the situation on a shortage of coal and the fact that the local river isn’t deep enough to provide hydropower.

On the bright side, China is investing a lot in wind power. Their response to the financial crisis of of 2009 included $220 billion investment in renewable energy. Baoding province is now one of the world’s centers for producing wind turbines, and by 2020 China plans to have 100 gigawatts of peak wind power online.

That’s pretty good! Remember our discussion of Pacala and Socolow’s stabilization wedges? The world needs to reduce carbon emissions by roughly 10 gigatonnes per year by about 2050 to stay out of trouble. Pacala and Socolow call each 1-gigatonne slice of this carbon pie a ‘wedge’. We could reduce carbon emissions by one ‘wedge’ by switching 700 gigawatts of coal power to 2000 gigawatts of peak wind power. Why 700 of coal for 2000 of wind? Because unfortunately most of the time wind power doesn’t work at peak efficiency!

So, the Chinese plan to do 1/20 of a wedge of wind power by 2020. Multiply that effort by a factor of 200 worldwide by 2050, and we’ll be in okay shape. That’s quite a challenge! Of course we won’t do it all with wind.

And while the US and Europe are worried about excessive government and private debt, China is struggling to figure out how to manage its vast savings. China has a $3.2 trillion foreign reserve, which is 30% of the world’s total. The fraction invested in the US dollars has dropped from 71% in 1999 to 61% in 2010, but that’s still a lot of money, so any talk of the US defaulting, or a drop in the dollar, makes the Chinese government very nervous. This article goes into a bit more detail:

• Zhang Monan, Dollar depreciation dilemma, China Daily, 2 August 2011.

In a move to keep the value of their foreign reserves and improve their ratio of return, an increasing number of countries have set up sovereign wealth funds in recent years, especially since the onset of the global financial crisis. So far, nearly 30 countries or regions have established sovereign wealth funds and the total assets at their disposal amounted to $3.98 trillion in early 2011.

Compared to its mammoth official foreign reserve, China has made much slower progress than many countries in the expansion of its sovereign wealth funds, especially in its stock investments. Currently, China has only three main sovereign wealth funds: One with assets of $347.1 billion is managed by the Hong Kong-based SAFE Investment Co Ltd; the second, with assets of $288.8 billion, is managed by the China Investment Corporation, a wholly State-owned enterprise engaging in foreign assets investment; the third fund of $146.5 billion is managed by the National Social Security Fund.

From the perspective of its investment structure, China’s sovereign wealth funds have long attached excessive importance to mobility and security. For example, the China Investment Corporation has invested 87.4 percent of its funds in cash assets and only 3.2 percent in stocks, in sharp contrast to the global average of 45 percent in stock investments.

What’s interesting to me is that on the one hand we have these big problems, like global warming, and on the other hand these people with tons of money struggling to find good ways to invest it. Is there a way to make each of these problems the solution to the other?

7 Responses to Environmental News From China

  1. jingxiaoyi says:

    Hi John Baez.

    Long time no see:) I am from Ning Xia Hui Autonomous region. This year, the weather here is really abnormal. It’s too hot and dry in the northern part of it. And last year, there was too much rain fall in its south. In fact, the weather is really abnormal throughout this country. It seems that doomsday will come next year.

    What is worse, oil has spilled into the sea for about three months and no one take real action to stop it. Yesterday, 5000 tonnes of Cr 6+ was poured into a river, threatening the dwellers in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong.

    I have a presentiment that China will become the next SAHARA in the following century. In June, I travelled around the south of Inner Mongolia and its border with Ningxia. In Inner Mongolia, I couldn’t see a piece of grass land that hadn’t been devastated by coal-carrying cars. And I even found some people plant crops on the grass land. A huge area of land in Inner Mongolia had been completely destroyed because many people poured into Mongolia to scrape money from the coal under the ground. Inner Mongolia should be called ‘The Biggest Coal-Mine In The World’ now. I stayed in Hohhot, the capital city of Mongolia, for three days during which there was a sand storm every day and night. I heard that the Biggest Lake in Inner Mongolia is dwindling now. I reckon that the ‘Grass Land’ in Inner Mongolia should be written as a fairy tale in children’s textbooks.

    Yesterday, I visited the place where I was born, a small village on Helan Mountain, near the border with Inner Mongolia where there is a preservation zone for a kind of unique plant, which is locally called ‘shanto’ and some blue goats, which are an endangered species. I remember how beautiful it is when the ‘shanto’ bloom in spring and the mountain was covered by pink. At that time, no one was allowed to mine sands there and all the coal mines were underground. But now they are strip mining from the surface. In fact, there were six mountains leveled by machines. I cannot see any tree of ‘shanto’ there because they had been buried by the ore and stones. Can you imagine how terrible and dusty it is? It is like a HELL!

    I remember many different kinds of wild animals I saw on the mountain. But now they become the history of China. To be honest, I cannot find a reason to stop hating the people who came to my hometown to make money.

  2. Tim van Beek says:

    Glad to see you back unharmed :-)

    John wrote:

    In Beijing the average price of a parking lot is 140,000 yuan, which is about $22,000. In Shanghai it’s 150,000 yuan. But in fancy neighborhoods the price can be much higher: for example, up to 800,000 yuan in Beijing!

    For comparison, the average salary in Beijing was 36,000 yuan in 2007—and the median is probably much lower…

    In the outer rims of Munich, Germany, (my neighborhood) a parking lot costs about 400 Euros per year, unless you own a house with one, of course. I don’t know what the average income is in Munich, but suspect that it will be somewhere between 50 000 and 200 000 Euros per year. (A lot of people who do the not well paid jobs don’t live in Munich but beyond the outer rims).

    The car sales in China have caused a record year of earnings for German car companies and a political debate about the ecologic impacts of an industrialization of China. This debate has existed before, but until now it was theory, mostly. Now it is happening.

    Here is one of a series of watchtowers near Dunhuang, once a thriving city at the eastern end of the Silk Road. I don’t think this area was such a desert back then…

    I think such an image could have inspired Tolkien to invent the watchtower of Amun Sûl. There are of course similar constructs like Massada in Israel, which – despite being located in a desert – has quite big swimming pools inside (well, bath tubs where dozens of people fit in). (Massada is also fascinating because there are visible remnants of the Roman siege, like the ramp).

    • John Baez says:

      Tim wrote:

      Glad to see you back unharmed :-)

      Thanks! I got something like heat stroke after a long hike, and that morphed into fever and diarrhea, but it didn’t stop me from giving my talks, and I actually did a lot better than most of the non-Chinese mathematicians who visited Changbai. I am now lying in bed here in Singapore. Nothing serious: I’m sure a bit of blogging will cure me.

      In the outer rims of Munich, Germany, (my neighborhood) a parking lot costs about 400 Euros per year, unless you own a house with one, of course. I don’t know what the average income is in Munich, but suspect that it will be somewhere between 50 000 and 200 000 Euros per year.

      Wow — that’s a lot! Is almost everyone well-off, or is there just one guy who earns a billion a year?

      Just to be pedantic, I should emphasize that my Chinese prices of parking lots are the price of buying one, not renting one.

      I think such an image could have inspired Tolkien to invent the watchtower of Amun Sûl.

      I really loved that whole scene set in Amun Sûl (in the book, that is). I also liked his depiction of the barrow wights. Tolkien had a great sense of the eerie attraction of old abandoned earthworks. He must have gotten some of his inspiration from Britain. Once Oz took me to some old sites in Oxfordshire, perhaps including The Devil’s Quoits here:

      But Dunhuang and other ancient cities of the Silk Road have an incomparable romance of their own. Dunhuang means ‘blazing beacon’, after the beacon towers like this:

      Endless fun can be had at the International Dunhuang Project, but it’s even better to start with Peter Hopkirk’s book Foreign Devils on the Silk Road.

  3. Tim van Beek says:

    John wrote:

    Wow — that’s a lot! Is almost everyone well-off, or is there just one guy who earns a billion a year?

    Just to be pedantic, I should emphasize that my Chinese prices of parking lots are the price of buying one, not renting one.

    Okay, I really misunderstood that and thought that is the renting fee.

    We happen to see in Germany similar urbanization as is described by Stewart Brand in “Whole Earth Discipline” (see recommended reading), which means that rural areas lose attractiveness, people move to cities and rich people move to the inner cities, which increases housing costs. Munich is the most expensive city in Germany in this regard. You’ll find 3-room apartments with a higher rent than the average income of a German household, and landlords will often only rent to people who can pay that with about 20% of their income (you’ll need to show your paychecks to prove that — well, the German equivalent of paychecks).

    If this trend continues, we’ll have ghettos of working poor who work in the city but live in the suburbs, while those who live in the city need to be rich enough not to work at all :-)

    • John Baez says:

      If this trend continues, we’ll have ghettos of working poor who work in the city but live in the suburbs, while those who live in the city need to be rich enough not to work at all :-)

      That reminds me: lots of farmland near Beijing is being built up and then rented or sold illegally, without clear title. Legal housing is too expensive for many people. If this practice were regularized, housing prices would drop… but apparently a lot of government officials don’t want that. For one thing, they’re benefiting from the soaring price of housing.

      (I already mentioned this on Google+, but it belongs here too.)

      I’ll make it clearer that I’m talking about the price of buying a parking lot.

  4. John Baez writes,

    On the bright side, China is investing a lot in wind power. Their response to the financial crisis of of 2009 included $220 billion investment in renewable energy. Baoding province is now one of the world’s centers for producing wind turbines, and by 2020 China plans to have 100 gigawatts of peak wind power online.

    That’s pretty good! Remember our discussion of Pacala and Socolow’s stabilization wedges? We could reduce carbon emissions by one ‘wedge’, that is one gigatonne per year, by switching 700 gigawatts of coal power to wind. The world needs roughly 10 wedges by about 2050 to stay out of trouble.

    So, the Chinese alone are doing 1/7 of a wedge of wind power by 2020.

    You started out encouragingly, not forgetting to include the word “peak” in “peak wind power”, but then you did the thing that is, unfortunately, usual in counting a peak gigawatt of coal as equivalent to one of wind. But coal-fired dynamos do a larger fraction of a flat-out year in a year than wind turbines do.

    I make out that 100 wind GW as 1/21 of a wedge, not 1/7.

    • John Baez says:

      G.R.L. wrote:

      You started out encouragingly, not forgetting to include the word “peak” in “peak wind power”, but then you did the thing that is, unfortunately, usual in counting a peak gigawatt of coal as equivalent to one of wind. But coal-fired dynamos do a larger fraction of a flat-out year in a year than wind turbines do.

      I make out that 100 wind GW as 1/21 of a wedge, not 1/7.

      Whoops! You’re right.

      The Azimuth team didn’t make that mistake in our earlier analysis of Pacala and Socolow’s paper. There we summarized their discussion of wind as follows:

      Replacing 700 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants by 2000 gigawatts of peak wind power. Wind power is intermittent: Pacala and Socolow estimate that the ‘peak’ capacity (the amount you get under ideal circumstances) is about 3 times the ‘baseload’ capacity (the amount you can count on). So, to save a gigatonne of carbon per year by replacing 700 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, we need roughly 2000 gigawatts of peak wind power. Wind power was growing at about 30% per year when they wrote their paper, and it had reached a world total of 40 gigawatts. So, getting to 2000 gigawatts would mean multiplying the world production of wind power by a factor of 50.

      The wind turbines would ‘occupy’ about 30 million hectares, or about 30-45 square meters per person — some on land and some offshore. But because windmills are widely spaced, land with windmills can have multiple uses. To increase something by a factor of 50 in 50 years, it’s enough to maintain an annual growth rate of slightly more than 8%.

      Then we said:

      As mentioned, to use wind power to reduce our coal burning by 1 gigatonne of carbon per year, we would need to increase the amount of peak wind power worldwide by a factor of 50, starting from its 2004 level. This sounds difficult, but to grow by a factor of 50 over 50 years, wind power would only need to grow at an average annual rate of 8.3%. And according to the Renewables 2010 Global Status Report (page 16), the average annual growth rate over the five-year period from the end of 2004 to 2009 was much higher than this: namely, 27%.

      According to the same source, peak wind power capacity reached 159 gigawatts in 2009. So, reaching Pacala and Socolow’s goal of 2000 gigawatts now requires multiplying the world production of wind power by a factor of 12.5. To reach this goal by 2054 now requires an average annual growth rate of only 5.8%.

      Regarding Pacala and Socolow’s calculation for wind power: it does not suffice to account for intermittency by equating baseload capacity to one third of nominal peak capacity, one needs to supplement wind farms with e.g. pumped storage systems to account for variabilities such as lulls. See Capacity factor of wind power for more information.

      Thanks for catching my slip-up. I’ll fix it in the blog article!

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