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China's carbon emissions have shot up as energy demands soar. But will this change with new technology? Jane Wu investigates.

Zhang Fubin, who works at the Tianjin Cement Industry Design & Research Institute in China, is constantly being interrupted by his mobile phone.

Since the institute successfully developed new technology to generate energy from the waste gases emitted during cement making, he has barely had time to himself.

"My colleagues and I are busy running between cement plants to update their facilities with this new technology," he says.

A report by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (19 June) claims that China is now the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and the vast amount of cement China is producing to fuel its building spree is a prime culprit.

But projects like Zhang's provide evidence that the country is adopting measures to put the brakes on pollution, while still maintaining its momentum in manufacture.

Zhang proudly shows off a revolving kiln, humming inside the Zhejiang Shenhe Cement company in suburban Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang province.

The kiln, which makes cement from its raw materials, is where the technology was first tested three years ago, as part of a United Nations project with China to encourage businesses to reduce carbon emissions by adopting energy-efficient technologies.


"The project initiators approached us in 2004, asking us to design a waste-heat power-generation facility for Shenhe Cement's new kiln," Zhang recalls.

The project had help from the Japanese, who had the most advanced technology at the time. With their assistance, Zhang and his colleagues brought out a design as efficient as the best technology available would allow, but for almost half the price.

The fact that they shared their technology "helped a lot in our research," says Zhang.

The system uses the heat from waste gases produced in the kiln during the cement-making process both to dry the cement and to heat water in a boiler that drives a turbine to produce electricity. Almost nothing is wasted.

Since it has been in operation, the new facility has generated an accumulative power of 25 million kilowatt hours, supplying one third of the required power for the company, according to Wei Songgen, president of Shenhe Cement.

He said the new technology has helped the factory to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20,000 tons annually by reducing the need to burn coal for power.

Today, the Tianjin institute has helped 30 domestic cement production lines build similar facilities for low-temperature waste-heat recovery. "Another 30 are still under construction for this year," Zhang told SciDev.Net.

He adds that the institute has also received requests from overseas, signing contracts with two Thai factories.

Energy efficiency is not the norm

Despite the success of Tianjin institute and Shenhe Cement, achieving energy efficiency is still unusual in this industry.

China's cement industry consumes 44 per cent more energy per unit than in developed countries, and the rapid development of energy-intensive industries, such as steel, copper and electricity, offset individual efforts like Zhang's.

According to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, both the soaring demand for coal to generate electricity and the surge in cement production have pushed China's recorded carbon dioxide emissions for 2006 beyond those of the United States by eight per cent.

Construction in cities like
Beijing is driving up energy
Credit: Neonstar

Other energy-efficiency projects have not seen the same support as Zhang's.

"Despite the apparent benefits of saving energy, our projects cannot get enough financial support from banks, who worry that the loan cannot be returned on time," says Jin Jiaman, director of the Beijing-based Global Environment Institute, which has promoted energy-efficiency technologies in China's cement industry.

One problem is that cheap electricity makes it hard for energy-efficiency projects to be profitable. And it is far from clear how the electricity from these projects could be transmitted to the local grid.

"This kind of electricity is not as stable as electricity from generators, and grid operators need extra investment in equipment to distribute it, but who will pay the bills?" asks Zhang Chaoyang, a senior official from electricity generator China Guodian Power.

Energy-efficiency projects, such as those based on solar and wind power, are also hindered by China's lack of technology. Despite its cheap labour, China's solar battery costs are 30 per cent higher than its German and US counterparts.

These problems will have to be addressed because China needs affordable, energy-efficient and climate-friendly technologies.

Sharing climate-friendly know-how

An important step forward will be to convince developed countries to share their technology and know-how.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which produced guidelines for international cooperation in climate-change issues, stipulates that developed countries have an obligation to offer funds and technologies to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

On 4 June, China issued its first plan of action — the National Climate Change Program, intended to guide China in mitigating and adapting to climate change — in which it urged developed countries to "eliminate obstacles to technology cooperation and transfer" (see China rejects emissions caps in climate plan).

Lu Xuedu, deputy director general of the Office of Global Environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Science and Technology, said that developed countries' willingness to transfer low-carbon technologies is the key to helping developing countries to lower their emissions.

One example is technology for generating wind power, he said. At present, China is only able to build small-scale wind farms with a production capacity of 800 kilowatts. But with the technology used in some developed countries, wind farms with a capacity as large as 30,000 kilowatts could be set up.

Another technology that developing countries are seeking urgently but cannot develop on their own because of the high cost is carbon capture and storage, where carbon is captured from power plants and stored, for example underground.

On 14 June, Liu Yanhua, vice-minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology, told the press that China has invested a huge sum of money for research in this area, and wished to continue developing the technology so it can be applied to new power plants as soon as possible.

If developed countries cooperate with China under the Clean Development Mechanism (an arrangement specified in the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialised countries to offset their emissions by investing in emission reducing projects in developing countries) this might be possible.

"We hope in the future that developed countries can lend more extensive support in terms of technology transfer of carbon storage technology," Liu said.

He added that China would step up efforts in collaborating with the international community to expedite the application of carbon-storage technology.

Transferring technology, creating rivals

But according to Ma Kai, minister of the National Development and Reform Commission, developed countries have "said a lot, but done little" in technology transfer.

Collaboration, like that between Zhang and the Japanese, is rare. The reasons can be highly political.

There are three types of technology that developed countries are reluctant to transfer, says Gong Zhongming, a researcher at the National Research Centre for Science and Technology for Development.

"The first are those with a potential for military application, such as satellite observation technologies," he told SciDev.Net.

The second are those that give a strong industrial competitive edge; and the last are those related to resources and energy control.

"These two are crucial for economic development, which developed countries do not want to see in less developed ones," Gong said.

"When they sell technologies to China, they are afraid of creating a rival for themselves instead," he added.

According to Zhou Shijian, executive director with the Chinese Association of American Studies, US high-tech exports to China were reduced by ten per cent in 2006 compared with those in 2001.

The US Department of Commerce recently (18 June) announced they will further reduce high-tech exports to China, including plane engines, lasers, underwater cameras and electronic devices for use in space.

However, China is set to increase its import of high-tech products from the United Kingdom, as announced by minister of commerce Bo Xilai during his recent trip to London for the Sino–UK Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. It will offset the trade imbalance between the two countries, he said.


And between 2001 and 2006, the European Union has increased its high-tech exports to China by seven per cent.

Despite this, Kishan Khoday, assistant resident representative of the United Nations Development Program in China, says the transfer of technology from developed countries to developing ones is "too slow".

He said that China, as well as other developing countries, should look instead to banks or private equities for a solution, as they have a growing interest in investing in technology transfer.

It is also important that China should encourage local forces, such as local scientists, researchers and companies to develop its own technologies, he said.

China must rely on its own
scientists to develop
Credit: NREL

Peter Cook, chief executive of the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies in Australia, a forerunner in carbon storage and sequestration technology, told SciDev.Net that there is "no easy way" to transfer technology, especially when it comes to technologies such as carbon sequestration that are still in development.

"It is unrealistic for developing countries to obtain such technologies at no cost," he points out.

He says developing and developed countries need to share costs, and developing countries could offer incentives like market shares so that developed countries would be more willing to help.

Cook also added that China already has access to many good low-carbon technologies. "The first question, I think, is how the country can make good use of what it has now," he said.

Is the future green?

In the opinion of cement-scientist Zhang Fabin, the outlook for local, energy-efficient technology in China is positive, with the Chinese government and private enterprise both becoming more active in adopting home-grown technologies like his.

"The government has the international pressure, and companies know they can save money with only a small investment," says Zhang.

The next step, he says, will be to create a system that encourages more industries to go green.

"Otherwise, those industries that have great potential to generate power from their waste heat will feel reluctant to adopt new technologies."

Additional reporting by Jia Hepeng, SciDev.Net China coordinator