Greening the giant


One of the stereotypes about China I’ve heard many times is that of a smoke belching, coal guzzling giant. Its massive need for electricity following rapid industrialisation, and the plentiful supply of fossil fuels from it’s vast natural resources means that it is a huge polluter – and one that has an image of being reluctant to adapt to the growing concerns around climate change. Like many other nations, China plays the development deficit card – if the west was allowed to use so much carbon dioxide in getting to its current level of wealth, surely it’s fair to do the same in playing catch-up. Cue a discussion involving modern technology being vastly more efficient, questionable phrases like ‘clean coal’, ‘carbon capture and storage’, and what fairness really means in a world that is currently consuming at twice the rate that is globally sustainable – but where most of that consumption is being done by a small proportion of the population.

In that context, it’s been interesting to see a surprising number of green shoots of renewables on our journey. Almost everywhere we’ve been, rooftops are decorated with solar water heating, the distinctive cylinders above a slanted set of pipes producing a pretty pattern in a panorama across the roofs of Lhasa. On our train journey across the interior, we passed wind farm after wind farm, with huge turbines lying on the ground in places ready for assembly.

In Tibet, it’s been fascinating to see the streets frequented by solar kettles alongside the motorbike shops and smoke belching tractors. Our guide was telling us that the parabolic mirrors with a kettle suspended in the middle used to be made of cement and take a few people to move around, but recent innovations mean they’re a simple aluminium dish on a portable frame. 20 minutes to boil a large kettle in the high altitude sun – not bad for free energy!

Oh, and Laura reminds me – electric vehicles. The alleyways and side streets here are disarmingly quiet (certainly compared to the cacophony of horns and engines on the main roads). Almost everyone seems to be using electric bikes – from your electric motor-assisted regular cycle, to pimped-up motorbike-sized things. And all absolutely silent. A few times we’ve nearly walked into the path of them (on the pavement, I should point out) because you just can’t hear them coming. I know electric bikes are becoming more common on the streets of Britain, but it’s us playing catch-up here.

I’m sure renewables remain a drop in the (rising) ocean – and many of the pressures to adopt these technologies are financial rather than environmental – but in a land where even in the fresh mountain air of Tibet the locals wear face masks for fear of pollutants, it’s easy to over-apply a single stereotype.


Reaching for the sky

20110910-065005.jpgYou don’t need to travel here to realise that modern China is about growth and immense scale – but seeing it for yourself really does bring it home.

The Great Wall seems to have set the tempo. If a book ‘The Great Wall for dummies’ existed, the first fact it would tell you is that it was not one contiguous wall, but many individual sections, broken up by mountains and other impassable landscape. (The second thing it would tell you is that it’s only as visible from space as motorways, which are wider – and there’s no chance of seeing it unaided from the moon, as has been claimed.) However, saying that The Wall doesn’t go over mountains somewhat understates the effort involved in constructing it. Remember, this is the land of Everest – the sheer, near-vertical rocky ascenders would certainly be called mountains back home. The gentle stroll we were expecting up to and along the wall was anything but – see the photo for a sample of it.

It feels a bit like there’s an attempt to prove that humankind owns and hence dominates the natural world no matter what nature has thrown at us. Take electricity pylons for example. Conventionally you’d expect them to follow the path of least resistance – alongside the rivers that cut valleys through the rock. Not here. Some planner has taken a contourless map and a ruler, and just gone for it, meaning that certainly around the major cities the surrounding mountains have glistening silver monuments to modernity adorning their peaks. I pity the construction workers; nothing short of a helicopter could have been used to shift the materials into place.


Even in calm, prayer flag laced Lhasa, the scale of construction is huge. Opposite the hotel where we were staying is a mammoth building site, where they’re constructing the latest shopping mall in China’s enthusiastic embrace of capitalism. Laura thinks I’ve become obsessed by what I’m about to tell you – but let me assure you, it’s nowhere near her addiction to bells (and fountains).

My fascination? They’re using A LOT of water. I don’t mean ‘oh, I left the tap on’, or even ‘let’s run the industrial sprinklers for hours every night’. This is an order of magnitude above: install a whole new set of water mains running above ground for miles across town from at least two different sources. These mains are massive – six or eight welded steel pipes of say eight inches in diameter, running into the distance along the pavement, complete with car-ramps, troughs in the roads so they can cross – and, being spot welded around us while we were there, pedestrian-friendly steps over them. This maze of pipes ends up in four huge water towers, one at each corner of the construction site, into which we could see torrents of water gushing day and night, only to mysteriously vanish again through a network of pipes into the ground around the construction site.

Perhaps they’re creating the world’s largest underground swimming pool? Who knows. This wasn’t what I was thinking of when I said that migration and modernisation was diluting the local culture!

Even the Great Wall has its accoutrement to modernity – a toboggan run from the top down to the car park in the valley below, which we dutifully took in the name of research.

I’m not even going to mention the Ilisu Dam.

The irony is that as I write this, the busy road from Lhasa has turned into a bmx-style dirt track, with our bus becoming a temporary rollercoaster. For all the prosperity in modern China, it remains a country with extreme contrasts – gleaming urban skyscrapers against a backdrop of massive rural poverty. It may well be the world’s next superpower, but it is one whose GDP is the same as that of Namibia, at $6,000 a year. Multiply that up by 1.4 billion people and you have something colossal – but then when you think of a landscape that stretches from the Himalayas to the Straights of Japan, you realise just how spread out everything is and in reality just how little has been tamed let alone dominated by humankind.