Thoughts on sustainability from China

As I write this I’m sat on a night train somewhere in China. It’s crowded, sweaty and noisy. I won’t sleep, I’m sure. So I’m going use this time productively and hope that this doesn’t tail off into the sleep deprived ramblings of an idiot.

I am travelling around China and SE Asia as a break from work, but already China has really focussed my mind on how we can get through the next century without, frankly, fucking everything up. I’m not the kind of pessimist who thinks humanity will wipe itself out any time soon, but neither do I think we can get through this without severely damaging our environment.

Before I came here I had already heard all about China’s huge population and its incredible pollution. However seeing this in person has really brought things home. At the moment I feel a mixture of despair along with a fair share of guilt. China is largely as polluted as it is because the West has exported its dirty industries, effectively hiding the problem from its own people. While we congratulate ourselves on our cities becoming cleaner our net environmental impact is getting greater as the amount we consume increases.

The politics and culture of China don’t make things easier. Corruption is everywhere all the way from the top to the bottom of society. Apartment blocks are apparently built on land grabs made by the government from disenfranchised locals, and despite officially being a Communist country China is exceedingly capitalist.

Saying I know how to fix all this would make me a fantasist of the grandest order. However if I am anything I am a realist, possibly to a fault. We will not convince 1.3 billion people who remember the starvation of their parents and grandparents to slow down development and do things more cleanly. People here just don’t care or recognise the problem.

So where can we go from here?

Frankly at the moment, I’m not sure. Part of me feels like all of what I do is a waste of time. Is it all just intellectual masturbation?

(Train update, it currently looks like this…)

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One of my opinions that has been reinforced by this trip is that if the West really wants to help tackle climate change and the biodiversity crisis we need to look at ourselves first. Whatever people say Europe, North America and Australia have a huge amount of power, and are indirectly responsible for much of the environmental damage in developing countries. We need to start by cleaning up our act. This means reducing our footprint and importing fewer cheap, dirty products.

How do we do this? Well really I’m not sure. Even supposedly ‘green’ countries like Denmark have huge ecological impacts due to their imports. At the moment I think that most Westerners don’t even recognise this as a problem so scientists would do well to quantify the impact of these products and the the indirect impact of Western citizens (as some are already doing). Once this starts to be recognised as a problem then we can start to deal with it as a society.

On top of that is important that governments push to reduce per capita energy consumption and that appropriate technologies are used to make any consumption as clean as possible. This means using nuclear and renewables; GM and organic. No technology is evil it is what you do with it that counts.

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How I learned to stop worrying and love nuclear power.

Biodiversity conservation by and large boils down to decisions about what we do and where we do it. Land use change is the major driver of biodiversity loss globally, mostly as a result of agricultural expansion. The discussion surrounding how to best divide up the landscape to best benefit biodiversity whilst meeting target of food production will run and run, but the land-sharing/land-sparing argument is equally applicable to other subjects.

One of these is power production. We all know that we are meant to be reducing emissions in the face of climate change. Some governments are doing this, while many others don’t really care. Meanwhile, with increasing global population it seems unlikely that energy demand will be reduced, at least in the short term.

To anyone reading this blog the consequences of not changing energy policies will probably be fairly clear. Increased severity of climate change will push species ever further polewards and disrupt the synchrony between species. Climate change could also disrupt agricultural production, which would be disastrous given that global human population is set to increase for at least the next 50 years. Given all this, it should be a no-brainer that we switch to less carbon intensive means of producing energy.

Most environmentalists would generally say that we should replace dirty coal and gas fired power stations with clean renewable energy generation. I agree, but only partially.

Renewables bring their own set of problems. Firstly, can they really meet our current energy demands? Probably not. It would need extremely quick uptake of green tech to do this. Even Germany, the EU country with the greatest percentage of its energy produced by renewables, can only manage 25%. Relatively speaking, this is great. However, they still need to do more.

Also there is the issue of space. How will we use our land to produce energy? Most renewables would take up relatively large chunks of land compared to the standard power station. Firstly, biofuels (which are a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons, but that’s the subject for another blog post) would need massive areas to be grown. They would also compete with agriculture for land, spelling problems for food security. Damming of rivers, like that recently announced for the Mekong, completely screw up the movement of aquatic species thus interfering with migration and breeding cycles.  All renewable energy production methods will require more space than carbon intensive methods (for a more detailed analysis see David MacKay’s excellent TED talk below). From a UK perspective it appears the best bet in terms of energy produced per square mile would, surprisingly, be solar.

However, I think the best idea would be to mix renewables and nuclear. This would allow for greater energy production for the area used than a wholesale switch to renewables and would still reduce carbon emissions. If this policy was implemented harm to biodiversity would be reduced and there would be less threat to food crops from the expansion of biofuels. To me this seems blindingly obvious. There are, thankfully, other conservationists and green groups that have seen the light but in general the green movement seems to be opposed to nuclear.

I find this extremely frustrating. Particularly the backlash following the tsunami in Japan last year. Both Japan and Germany are decommissioning their power plants and other European countries are not planning to replace their ageing reactors. We need to make hard decisions, often choosing between the least bad options. We can’t live in a magical land where renewables can provide the energy we need ad infinitum. Those of us that realise this should pressurise groups like Greenpeace and the various green parties throughout Europe into rethinking their policies. Without this rethink, they could be doing more environmental harm than good.