With more public support for saving the Earth, China looks set to lead the way

 Peter Foster

A wind power farm outside of Urumqi, which will help China generate the 100gW wind power target by 2020. AFP

URUMQI — The speed with which China is now ramping up its commitment to alternative energies has caught even the most optimistic analysts by surprise, with new green edicts being issued from Beijing on an almost weekly basis.

Last week officials pledged to generate 100 gigawatts of electricity from wind power by 2020, more than tripling the original target of 30gw laid down in a national energy strategy published just 18 months ago.

Public attitudes towards the environment have also started to change. In the wind-fields of Dabancheng, the first 13 windmills, bought from Denmark and erected in 1989, are now used primarily as a tourist attraction.

Nuclear, solar and hydroelectricity are also being lined up for massive new investment through China's £400 billion ($880 billion) stimulus package, with 2020 targets for nuclear power raised from 40gW to 60gW, with some officials even talking of aiming for 70gW.

Investment is also being poured into China's electricity grid to enable more renewable sources to be connected, while planners say they want to halve carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 2020.

After years in which China put economic growth before almost all environmental considerations, analysts now see a step-change in attitudes from the central government backed by hard cash and the raw political muscle of China's command economy.

"The old belief that China could follow the model of Western industrial nations by making a mess today and paying for the clean-up tomorrow now appears to be dead," said Ms Yang Ailun, director of Greenpeace's climate and energy campaign in China.

"China's leaders now realise that for long-term growth to be sustainable, they will have to both reduce power usage by finding greater efficiencies."

The desire to take a greener path is not confined to China's all-powerful government. Activists say there is growing grass-roots support for change, spurred by a growing realisation that ordinary people are paying a heavy price for China's old "dirty" development model.

In Beijing, environmental activist Ma Jun cites the efforts to clean up the air pollution ahead of last year's Olympic Games as just one example of how the Chinese public's mindset is rapidly changing.

After the games, there were several popular campaigns by residents who had enjoyed clean air for the first time in a decade to keep polluting factories closed and retain traffic restrictions.

"People had come to accept that it was impossible to have blue skies over Beijing, but during the Olympics they suddenly saw that wasn't true," said Mr Ma. "Now they don't want to go back to the old polluted ways."

It will be a massive challenge, but this week, further optimism was generated by reports that China's was, for the first time, actively considering setting emissions targets ahead of negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto treaty in Copenhagen later this year.

Although decisions have not been taken, analysts saw the reports as yet further evidence that China, after years of arguing that the West should clean up its own act before it took steps of its own, was preparing to take an unprecedented lead at Copenhagen.

"The fact that the country's leadership is now putting a focus on climate change... gives us great hope that China could achieve a second miracle 30 years from now by moving to a low carbon economy," wrote Mr Steve Howard, chief executive officer of The Climate Group.

"But this time, we believe that China will no longer be a developing country following where others have led, but a pioneer leading the way." THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

From TODAY, World – Tuesday, 05-May-2009

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