Energy efficiency in China: It must be seen as ‘cool’ to be energy efficient

Recent weeks have seen China’s government re-state its aims to drive up national energy efficiency with the twin objectives of constraining the use of energy resources and constraining the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Though energy intensity declined only slightly in 2006 after rising for three years, the government is confident that the target of a 20% reduction between 2006 and 2010 can still be achieved. By focusing on a small number of energy-intensive industries, they may be successful in meeting this short-term goal. By closing old plants, by constructing new and more efficient plants, by discouraging over-production and by no longer insisting that all energy-intensive products be made in China, it should indeed be possible to make a substantial short-term impact on the nation’s energy intensity. But to achieve efficiency gains over the long-term will need the active and willing participation of the whole of society – or at least the whole of urban society. It will need to be seen as ‘cool’ or, at least, fashionable to be energy efficient.


To achieve a fundamental change of behaviour in any society requires the participation of all levels of government, of enterprises, of communities and of individuals. Further, history shows that society does not have to wait for the government to lead this change. Society itself can lead and force the government to change.


Though dating back to earlier times, the modern environmental movement developed in America in the 1960s and 1970s. There, the children of a newly-affluent middle class looked at the society they lived in and did not like what they saw. Among the many things they disliked was the way that their society addressed the balance between economic growth and environmental protection. These individuals created organisations which were instrumental in forcing through a change of attitude in large sections of American and then in European society, and in persuading governments to enact new legislation to protect the environment. Subsequently ‘Green ‘ political parties emerged in Europe which have had a major impact on the energy and environmental policies of some countries, notably Germany.


Over the same period, companies have realised that it may be necessary to do more than just adhere to the environmental regulations in order to retain their ‘licence to operate’. Corporate reputation requires that they invest in more advanced practices and technologies, whether they be large multi-nationals or small, local firms. That is not to say that all companies do this, but the most progressive ones and the most successful ones do.


In the same way, many individuals adopt practices or invest in appliances which do not make economic sense in the short-run, but which recognise the external costs of traditional approaches. I know people who have bicycles to work all their lives, including somebody who was Chairman of a major international oil company. Others invest in renewable power appliances in their homes because they believe it is the right thing to do.


If we look at attitudes to global warming in the USA, the leadership to change policies and practices has come not from the federal government but from the States, who in turn have been pushed by their electorates. In the UK, it is individual towns and cities which have experimented with policies relating to effective energy management, whilst the central government struggles to implement its renewable energy targets. That is not to say that all members of society are equally progressive in their views and actions. Whilst some take public transport or use a bicycle, many others are buying every larger cars and SUVs.


What does all this mean for China today? It means that the newly affluent urban middle classes and the enterprises that employ them and provide the goods and materials they consume have to realise the scale and importance of the energy challenges that China faces – challenges relating to security of supply and challenges relating to the environment, both of which can be addressed in part through energy efficiency and energy conservation.


Of course, the central government must continue its current policy initiatives, but Chinese society cannot just wait for the government to solve these problems. The people must take responsibility for seeking new solutions and for voluntarily adopting their behaviour to the new realities. The ‘demonstration’ by cyclists in Beijing at the beginning of June drew attention to the need for Beijingers to break-off their love affair with the private car and get back onto bicycles – though I have to say that cycling is now a much more dangerous activity than when I lived and cycled around Beijing in the early 1990s.


In addition to getting back on their bikes, city dwellers can be making more use of the rapidly expanding public transport networks and by choosing to buy smaller, highly efficient cars, and by spurning the chance to show off their new-found wealth with a large car. Or, if they really do want to show off their wealth, then they can buy a hybrid car.


The more reputable dealers in household electrical appliances now clearly display the energy efficiency characteristics of each appliance. And, yes, the highly efficient air conditioners may cost a great deal more than the least efficient ones, but can it not be ‘cool’ to spend more? Or, those who cannot afford to buy the most efficient air conditioners, can instead turn off their conditioning more often. One of the ‘joys’ of summer visits to Beijing is sleeping in a room at a temperature of more than 30 degrees. To have the airconditioning on throughout the night is almost a moral crime, except in the very hottest weather.


Of course, one of the major sources of wasted energy is the low standard of construction of apartments and offices in China. Individuals and enterprises must put more pressure on construction companies to adhere to the national building codes. Many people buy apartments before they are built, and so have the chance to ask if the buildings do indeed meet the national standards, and to insist that they should. If they don’t meet the standards, the prospective buyer should call in the journalists.

 I am fully aware that the people of China have less political power than those in western democracies; but they do have the power to support or to lead change in key areas like energy and the environment.  

Yes, I know a foreigner should not be telling Chinese citizens what to do. But it is time that the newly affluent middle classes take the future of their nation into their own hands, as they do in other countries, and not wait for the government to solve all the problems. It must be seen as ‘cool’ to be energy efficient.

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