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Inhaling China

For those trying to reverse global warming, it's difficult to see a silver lining in the dark clouds floating out of China.

After all, China is the second largest producer of greenhouse gases and could overtake the United States as early as 2010. It's already the leader in sulfur emissions. Rapid economic growth will soon double energy use per capita, requiring a multiple increase in coal burning.

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And that's in a nation with 21 percent of the world's people, which now ranks as the world's largest producer of household appliances and wants every family to own a car.

China's six largest cities are among the world's most polluted. Acid rain ruins crops on nearly one-third of China's land and then floats east to Japan and beyond. A large aerosol haze hangs over much of China, filtering sunlight to plants. The World Bank says air pollution (which includes smoking) is the nation's biggest killer.

Does China face a grim future under grimy skies? Well, to quote a Chinese axiom: If we don't change this train's direction, it will end up where it's headed.

A decade ago, China declared that it didn't need to curb emissions until it was a rich nation. But that ideology has since given way to recognition that air pollution chokes economic growth (while also threatening people).

A clear sign of new thinking in Beijing was a decision to close the capital's factories last October during the 50th anniversary of Communist China's founding. It was a historic breath of fresh air for city residents. And starting this year, unleaded gasoline will be required in major cities.

But shifting a nation's energy structure takes decades. Chinese leaders deserve credit for taking initial steps, especially in reducing coal pollution and seeking cleaner fuels.

Coal is China's mother lode of fuels, and probably will remain so in the 21st century. In 1989, China became the world's largest coal producer. Coal has risen in importance and now provides three-quarters of the nation's primary energy.

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Rather than wean China off coal totally, officials have begun work to burn it more efficiently, cleanly, and in nonurban areas, hopefully by 2010.

Dozens of old coal-fired plants have been closed while new and cleaner ones are being built near coal mines and in two of the most heavily polluted regions. Coal prices were set free of government controls in 1994. Plans call for turning coal into gas, greatly reducing emissions.

Hydroelectric and nuclear power are significant alternatives to coal, but China's leaders made a strategic decision this month that points in another direction: They approved a huge project to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). And in April, construction starts on a long-distance pipeline to bring natural gas from the northwest to Lanzhou, the world's most polluted city.

LNG, more expensive but cleaner than coal, could command 6 percent of China's energy mix in the next decade. Importing energy is a difficult choice for a nation that values self-reliance. But since 1993, China has been a net importer of liquid fuel.

Such steps by China are not only worth watching, but supporting. Japan, the US, and other nations are investing in many of these projects, hoping China has redirected its energy train down a cleaner track.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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