Tag Archives: energy

Rising Temperatures Hurt Current Energy Systems

Sarah LeRoy of the Southwest Climate Change Network weighs in on the rising temperatures and their impact on current energy systems. 

Climate change could substantially impact the energy system in the Southwest through less efficient power generation, reduced electricity distribution, and threats to energy infrastructure—all while peak energy demands increase. In this blog, the fourth in a series about the recently released Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest U.S., I expand upon these and other key findings from Chapter 12, which describes the vulnerability of our energy system to climate change. Then coordinating lead author Vince Tidwell, from Sandia National Laboratories, contributes his opinion.

Before we get to how climate change may affect energy in the Southwest, let’s first discuss the current energy infrastructure. As of 2009 (all of the following numbers are from 2009; EIA 2010), the Southwest produced about 12.7% of the nations’ total energy, an increase of 180% from 1960. Of that, 43% was natural gas, 21% crude oil, 19% coal, 10% renewable energy, and 7% nuclear. California, Colorado, and New Mexico were among the nation’s top ten energy-producing states, with California specializing in crude oil and renewable energy production, and Colorado and New Mexico specializing in natural gas production.

Similarly, the Southwest consumed 12.1% of the nation’s total energy (including transportation, industrial, residential, and commercial sectors)—up 255% from 1960. Overall in the region, demand was met by petroleum products (42%), natural gas (32%), coal (13%), renewables (8%), and nuclear power (5%). California dominated consumption, followed distantly by Arizona and Colorado. However, on a per-person basis, California and Arizona had the lowest consumption with 220 million British Thermal Units (BTUs) per person and New Mexico had the highest with 330 BTUs per person.

Looking ahead, climate change has the potential to wreak havoc on our energy infrastructure in a variety of ways. The Assessment authors address potential impacts—as well as adaptation strategies—in several categories:

Energy demand: As temperatures increase, especially summer daytime highs, peak period electricity demands for home and commercial summer cooling will increase.

Electricity generation:

Natural Gas: Warmer temperatures could decrease the capacity and efficiency of natural gas turbines. Other types of electric power plants also may be affected by warming, including coal, nuclear, wind, solar, bio-power, and geothermal. Adaptation measures that could be implemented include installing new types of cooling equipment and expanding existing capacity.

Hydropower: Hydropower generation could be impacted by several factors, such as changes in runoff due to decreased precipitation and increased evaporation, earlier snowmelt, and shifts in the frequency of extreme events. To mitigate these impacts, the authors suggest efficiency upgrades at existing hydroelectric facilities, development of new low-impact facilities, and altered reservoir operations.

Thermoelectric: Thermoelectric generation could become limited by reduced water supplies stemming from drought, which could cause the surface of a reservoir to drop below intake structures, limit the access to water, or raise water discharge temperatures above environmental limits. Mitigation and adaption options include integrated strategic water-energy planning, utilization of non-potable water sources for cooling, and using dry-cooled systems.

             Electricity distribution:

Transmission line capacity: Higher temperatures will increase demand for electricity while decreasing the carrying capacity of transmission lines. Two options for coping with and avoiding decreased capacity are to 1) reduce line capacity requirements by producing a larger fraction of power at or near the destination, and 2) place transmission lines underground.

Substation/Transformer capacity: Higher ambient temperatures and high minimum temperatures can affect transformer performance and reduce the peak-load capacity of banks of transformers in substations. Based on the projected number of days with maximum temperatures greater than 95°F, the southern and eastern parts of the Southwest are more at risk of reduced substation peak capacity. One adaptive strategy utility planners can take to offset future losses and increase substation capacities is to proactively install new types of cooling.

             Energy infrastructure:

Wildfire risk to electricity transmission: Not only can wildfires—which are predicted to increase in size and frequency due to climate change—physically destroy transmission lines, but they can also affect the capacity of a line through heat, smoke, and particulate matter. The effects of firefighting, such as aircraft dumping loads of fire retardants or preventive shutdowns, can also affect transmission operations. These impacts could be reduced by such means as increasing fire corridors around transmission lines, using transmission line materials that can withstand high heat, and building excess transmission capacity.

Sea-level rise and coastal inundation risk to power plants and substations: In California, coastal energy infrastructure will be at higher risk due to rising sea level, increasing high tide levels, more frequent extreme surge events at high tides, and accelerated shoreline erosion. Adaptive measures include building higher levees to protect existing power plants and constructing new plants at higher elevations, farther from the ocean.

 Cost of climate change: Any increase in energy prices due to climate change, such as increased demand and higher temperatures putting stress on the system, will have a direct impact on consumers. Climate policies limiting greenhouse gas emissions, while beneficial for limiting climate change and reducing air pollution, have the potential to increase energy costs to consumers.

Figure 1: Schematic of how climate change may impact energy infrastructure in the Southwest. Figure 12.5 from Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States.

Figure 1: Schematic of how climate change may impact energy infrastructure in the Southwest. Figure 12.5 from Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States.

I asked Tidwell his opinion on energy and climate change in the Southwest:

What do you consider to be the most dreaded or threatening impact(s) to the SW region, and how might they affect the average citizen?

Congratulations to Green Book Festival Award Winners!

Green Book FestivalIsland Press is pleased to congratulate the authors recognized by this year’s Green Book Festival awards. We’re particularly proud of Wade Davis, whose River Notes was given an honorable mention in the general non-fiction category; the Union of Concerned Scientists for winning the scientific category with Cooler Smarter; and Eric Dinerstein, whose The Kingdom of Rarities was runner-up in the animals category.

About Meghan Bartels

Publicity and marketing associate at Island Press; avid reader and tea drinker.

Cautious Optimism as Distinguished Professor Returns From UN Conference on Sustainable Development

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“Sustainability involves our duty to others, including future generations,” says Distinguished Professor and Environmental Law Center Co-Director John C. Dernbach, adding, “The growth in that understanding is one of the reasons I come away from Rio more hopeful than I might otherwise.”

Dernbach spent eleven days in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil beginning June 12th for events related to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. The conference brought together world leaders and thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other groups to discuss and examine sustainability and mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Read more about Dernbach’s experience in Rio here

When will America, world make sustainability a priority?

Twenty years ago, I took a week off from my job at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources and attended the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development as a private citizen.
At this conference, also known as the Earth Summit, nations of the world, including the United States, endorsed a nonbinding plan for a new form of development: environmentally sustainable development.

The big question then was what sustainable development means. At one event, two World Bank officials provided a practical answer, describing projects that built local economies, created jobs and protected and restored the environment at the same time.

In June, national leaders from all over the world met again in Rio de Janeiro for the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (or Rio+20), along with about 50,000 other people representing corporations, nongovernmental organizations, local governments and other interests.

Read the rest of John Dernbach’s article here

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About John Dernbach

John C. Dernbach is Professor of Law at Widener University Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He has divided his career between teaching and government service. In his teaching role, Dernbach has focused on sustainable development in the United States. He has edited the only two comprehensive nongovernmental assessments of U.S. sustainable development efforts. He has written and lectured widely on sustainable development, climate change, environmental law, and legal writing. In two stints totaling near 15 years, he worked at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (now the Department of Environmental Protection). During this time, he helped draft or help implement comprehensive and nationally recognized reforms to Pennsylvania’s mining and waste programs. More recently, he was Director of the Department’s policy office.

In the Case of Tar Sands Oil – Oils Well, Will Certainly Not End Well

Canada’s growing interest in exporting some of the dirtiest crude oil in the world is a threat to not only North America’s wildlife but also a rational energy policy and a stable atmosphere. NASA and climate scientist James Hansen called this project a climate game-changer because burning Alberta “tar sands” oil could raise CO2 levels in the atmosphere by 200 parts per million (ppm), pushing us dangerously away from the 350 ppm safety net that he and other scientists have recommend (we are currently at 390 ppm of CO2 and rising at about 1-2 ppm per year).

If President Obama approves the proposed pipeline connecting the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Gulf Coast (over 1700 miles away), it will show that oil runs thicker than environmental and human health concerns. The so-called Keystone XL pipeline may only be the beginning of more such projects to come. Another pipeline, known as the Enbridge (named for the oil company) pipeline, would connect Alberta tar sands oil with refineries in coastal BC, traversing First Nation’s and other pristine lands over a distance of nearly 800 miles.

To extract the tar sands oil, hot freshwater is combined with caustic soda and mixed with petro-laden sands dug out of the earth by giant excavating shovels. Boreal forests that get in the way are leveled in the process. The slurry is then piped to extraction areas where oil is skimmed off the top and toxic tailings sent to ponds where they pose wildlife hazards. The resulting process has been labeled the dirtiest oil on earth not only because it requires 2-5 barrels of freshwater for every barrel of bitumen (crude) extracted, but because in the extraction process 10-45% more greenhouse gas pollutants are emitted. The oil then needs to be shipped long distances via subsurface pipelines, introducing ground disturbances and possible pipeline leaks to farmlands, forests, and wildlife migratory pathways, including those of the endangered whooping crane. On July 27, 2010 an Enbridge pipeline spewed 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River (largest spill in Midwest history) and on July 2, 2011 a pipeline operated by Exxon Mobil leaked unknown quantities of oil into the pristine Yellowstone River causing local evacuations.

There is no denial that the topic of the moment, whether on Main Street, Wall Street, or the Halls of Congress, is jobs. And while the oil business generates thousands of jobs, it comes with a high cost to future jobs, future economies, life-giving freshwater, boreal forests, and marine life (should a spill occur). What would tomorrow’s labor force think of our quest today for jobs if myopic decisions set the stage for oil spills that will decimate commercial fishing, tourism, marine life, and freshwater?

Simply put, the more we depend on fossil fuel extraction, the further we are from transitioning to sane, rational, and sustainable connections to the very basic life-giving provisions in the natural world that sustain us. Nature has limits, our atmosphere has limits; inevitably, water will someday be worth far more than oil. Destroying boreal forests to extract oil, which absorb massive amounts of carbon, will also add to greenhouse gas pollutants, raising our procrastination penalty even further.

President Obama can block this project. For the plan to go forward, the President must sign off on it (and Congress has no role in that decision). This is a critical test for an administration that has so far failed to show the strong leadership on environmental issues that the nation—and voters—expected. Conservation groups have been protesting in front of the White House to make their point about dirty oil being a threat to the nation’s environmental security and that this pipeline is just bad politics (for more information go to www.350.org). The insatiable demand for fossil fuels by the US as well as China (which is the destination of much of the oil from tar sands) will someday come back to haunt us as it already has in the case of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and other tragic oil spills. Ultimately, maybe the dinosaurs will have the last laugh, as we liberate extracted molecules from their long-decayed buried bodies that now trap sunlight and cook the planet!

Dominick A. DellaSala is chief scientist and president of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and president of the North American section of the Society for Conservation Biology.  He is the author of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation.

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About Dominick A. DellaSala

Dominick A. DellaSala is Chief Scientist and President of the Geos Institute in Ashland, Oregon, and President of the North American section of the Society for Conservation Biology. He is the editor of Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World.

Win-Win for Wind Energy and Wildlife Conservation

Wind energy offers the potential to reduce carbon emissions while increasing energy independence and bolstering economic development. I am a huge proponent of harnessing wind to power our lives but this form of energy development has a larger land footprint per Gigawatt (GW) than most other forms of energy production, making appropriate siting and mitigation particularly important (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Renewable energy reduces our carbon footprint but human disturbance from poorly placed developments has unintended consequences for birds, bats and other wildlife. Photo credit Joe Kiesecker with The Nature Conservancy.

Wildlife species requiring large and intact habitats and those that avoid tall structures are particularly at risk from wind development. Developing energy on disturbed lands rather than placing new developments within large and intact habitats would reduce cumulative impacts to wildlife, a major tenet of our new book Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America.

As outlined by the Administration’s report ‘20% Wind Energy by 2030’, the Department of Energy (DoE) estimates it will take 241 GW of terrestrial based wind development on approximately 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) to reach 20% electricity production by 2030.

In a paper published this week in the scientific journal PLoS One The Nature Conservancy and I (and 5 others) estimate there are ~7,700 GW of potential wind energy available across the U.S., with ~3,500 GW on disturbed lands; plenty of wind potential within disturbed lands to meet our national goal.

Implementing a disturbance-focused development strategy would avert development of ~2.3 million hectares (5.7 million acres) of undisturbed lands while generating the same amount of energy as development based solely on maximizing wind potential.

New wind development has comparatively low wildlife impacts if sited in disturbed areas, and a disturbance-based development strategy is largely compatible with current land uses. Given turbine spacing needs, wind farms typically use only 2-4% of an area, making it compatible with agricultural production on tilled lands where few wildlife values remain.

Moreover, compensation for development increases profitability of disturbed lands that balance agricultural and oil and gas fields with wind development. For example, farmers receive $4-6K per turbine per year on land in corn production that yields an annual profit of <$1K per hectare.

Given the nationwide surplus in wind energy, it is conceivable that states unable to meet goals on disturbed lands could import electricity from states where there is a surplus of disturbance based wind energy (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Available wind-generated Gigawatts (GW) in each state as a percentage of the DoE goal that can be met on disturbed land. Bubbles indicate where goals can (blue) and cannot (red) be met on disturbed lands. Bubble area indicates total GW of wind potential available in the state (Range 0.37 GW in TN to 902 GW in MT). Inset shows potential GW wind production for the entire U.S. and potential on disturbed lands relative to the DoE 20% projection (modified from Kiesecker et al. 2011 PLoS One paper).

A number of states have a significant surplus of wind potential on disturbed lands where additional development would not likely cause significant wildlife losses.

Joe Kiesecker, the primary author on the PLoS One paper and Lead Scientist for The Nature Conservancy notes the importance of mitigating for climate change. “As a climate change mitigation strategy we need to ensure that renewable energies do not result in habitat loss similar to the effects that climate change will likely have. By prioritizing development on disturbed lands we can ensure that we get the benefits of renewable energy while maintaining biodiversity that is critical to human well being”.

Using science to help site wind developments presents a win-win solution for securing our Nation’s energy independence while safeguarding its wildlife heritage.

Readers can learn more about how proper wind siting can conserve wildlife in their state by visiting The Nature Conservancy’s Development by Design website.

David Naugle is a professor in the Wildlife Biology Program at the University of Montana and a leader in wildlife conservation in the West.  He is author of Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America. Follow Dave’s new book and related work on Facebook.

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About David E. Naugle

David Naugle is Associate Professor and Applied Landscape Ecologist in the Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana, Missoula, where he teaches courses in landscape ecology and wildlife habitat management. Dave's primary applied research interests are in understanding relationships between organisms and their habitats in a landscape context. Using the newest GIS and remote sensing technologies, he and his students quantify the importance of local and landscape attributes influencing habitat use of grassland and wetland birds in prairie and sagebrush ecosystems.

Dams on the Wild Nujiang

The central government’s seven-year moratorium on dam building in the Nujiang (“Angry River”) watershed is soon to be lifted and China’s last wild river will be wild no more. Last week, the Chinese National Energy Administration announced that hydropower development was now ready to move forward on the Nu.

The river that brought me to Yunnan six years ago is no ordinary river: It is big, wild, and, because of its incredibly steep drop off the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, features the most raucous rapids that I have ever seen. The Nujiang also flows through China’s richest treasure trove of biological and cultural diversity; more endemic plants and animals along with many ethnic nationality groups are crammed into this watershed than any other place in the country. Whether the native peoples and wild species survive the coming onslaught of mega hydropower development is an open question.

Why is the central government lifting the dam moratorium now? At the risk of simplifying a complex issue, here are some numbers to ponder. Today, China burns more coal than the U.S., Japan, and the European Union combined, and the country’s use of coal is set to grow for at least another 20 years. As a result into the foreseeable future, China will remain the worlds’ largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The central government wants to do everything it can to limit China’s carbon footprint and hydropower from dams must be part of the solution. By 2020, Beijing is committed to getting 15 percent of national energy from non-fossil fuel sources including hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, and others. If China is to get close to this goal, it will need to add 140 Gigawatts (GW) of new hydropower to the system. At full development, the Nu can produce about 21 GW of this total; for comparison, China’s Three Gorges Dam—the largest in the world—contributes some 18 GW.

What these figures show is that even with the dams on the Nujiang, China’s hydropower goal still requires numerous dams on other rivers all across China that will need to generate electricity equivalent to another six Three Gorges dams. Few sites on any Chinese river are going to escape the engineers’ eye even though the country already has more dams than any nation in the world. In fact, it is hard to imagine any river anywhere in China, including those in still-undeveloped Tibet that over the next decades will remain free-flowing for any appreciable length. But in losing its rivers, China will be gaining a partial solution to the staggering load of carbon that it is releasing into Earths’ atmosphere.

The question is: Will all this energy development be enough to slow and eventually stop the growth of Chinas’ carbon emissions? The answer is, no one knows. One can say for sure that without dams on the Nujiang, monster nuclear power plants, and world leadership in new forms of green energy production, China doesn’t stand a chance to gain control of its emissions.

But the cost to the country’s species, ecosystems, and rural people will be high. As long as the international community continues to drag its collective feet on controlling carbon emissions and climate change, rivers like the Nujiang everywhere on the planet will be at risk.

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About Edward R. Grumbine

R. Edward Grumbine teaches environmental studies at Prescott College and directed the Sierra Institute, University of California Extension, Santa Cruz, for more than a decade.

Load Shedding or Load Sharing?

During a trip last week to Nepal to attend a workshop on climate change adaptation strategies across the Himalaya, I experienced darkness within darkness for several hours every night. I am not talking about visiting one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, though poverty and political dysfunction are part of the darkness I mean to describe. The dim conditions I am referring to are both figurative and literal; each night Nepal undergoes “load shedding,” the governments preferred euphemism for what I have always known as a power outage.

Nepal cannot generate sufficient electricity to meet its needs, so for some indeterminate period each evening, the lights go out as if some master switch has been turned off. In the Nepali countryside where 60 percent of the people don’t have power to begin with, life goes on. In a small city like Bhaktapur, a World Heritage site whose narrow, automobile-free mud brick passageways can appear medieval, the effect is not so dramatic—unless you happen to be in the midst of eating dinner. In Kathmandu, a city of almost a million people with (mostly) modern infrastructure and activities, however, load shedding can disrupt the lives of locals and foreigners alike. Many businesses and wealthy Nepalis depend on private generators for backup electricity. But losing power on a daily basis is no recipe for running a country well.

Blackouts are not Nepal’s only problem. The country places 144 out of 153 nations on the United Nations’s Human Development Index. The average Nepali earns about $100 USD a month, almost half of all children below the age of 15 labor in the workforce, and some 30 percent of the people living in Kathmandu are not connected to a sanitation system. The city has the second worst air pollution in Asia. There was more than one night when I was out in the hazy streets dodging cars, motorbikes, and porters humping impossibly heavy loads of freight while the stench of garbage filled the air and cows lolled atop heaps of discarded plastic and rubbish. Every person I talked to—from NGO directors to hotel owners to small farmers—had nothing good to say about their government’s capacity to solve problems.

My climate adaptation conference ran parallel with a bilateral meeting between Nepalese government officials, business leaders, and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. The topic was how to stimulate Chinese investment in Nepal hydropower, tourism, and other economic sectors. If China can share the load of investing in these industries, load shedding might become a distant memory. As Chinese companies pour concrete for dams and turn river valleys into reservoirs, Nepal could leave the ranks of less developed countries behind.

Like every question surrounding hydropower dams in the Himalaya, however, there are problems with this scenario. It’s not that Nepal lacks hydropower sites; the country has only developed about 600 megawatts (MW) out of a potential 26,000MW. Not enough power is being generated today to satisfy peak demand resulting in load shedding. The Nepal Electric Authority estimates that in-country demand will grow to 1,788MW by 2020. Chinese companies are already constructing or about to build 11 dams that will add some 1,200MW to the system, making load shedding a thing of the past.

But will all this new power be fed into the grid for Nepalis? The answer is no; signed contracts already slate most of the new electricity to be sold to India. Chinese investors and Nepalese business interests will benefit and this kind of load sharing will likely result in more private sector profits than reductions in load shedding. And this cost/benefit analysis does not begin to address the host of environmental and social impacts of dam building.

The two meetings in Kathmandu last week did share one common theme: climate change. As my group of scientists and NGO staff struggled to devise a research agenda to meet the uncertainties of the future climate across a region that is warming faster than the global average, the investors and officials exploring new joint ventures were using historical river flow data to judge the profitability of hydropower for their bottom lines. But climate change already altered what future flows will look like from the giant rivers streaming off the world’s highest mountains.

Unless Chinese and Nepali officials revise their flow forecasts to accommodate the future climate, their attempts to share the load of growing Nepal out of poverty will probably result in higher levels of load shedding on the still-dim streets of Kathmandu.

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About Edward R. Grumbine

R. Edward Grumbine teaches environmental studies at Prescott College and directed the Sierra Institute, University of California Extension, Santa Cruz, for more than a decade.

The Spirits of the Dead Meet Big Hydropower

This is the next post in a year-long series written by Ed Grumbine, professor of environmental studies at Prescott College and author of Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River.

You don’t need hydroelectric dams, coal-fired power plants, or even solar-cells and wind farms to produce energy for some of the most important tasks that humans engage in. Honoring gods and spirits only requires a bit of paper money, small items of discarded clothing, incense, and a match.

Walking home from work through my Kunming neighborhood a few nights ago at dusk, I smelled smoke. This wasn’t diesel exhaust of air pollution; this was a live fire smell. I turned a corner and was confronted with an ageless tableau—on the sidewalk up the street were lots of people feeding small open fires. The low flames licked up into the sky as the smoke disappeared into thin air. Incense added its sweet perfume to the mix. Family groups fed paper money and worn-out bits of clothing into the flames and didn’t seem to notice a foreigner passing by. I must have walked by 50 fires before reaching my apartment.

Later, I learned that the fires were made to honor the ghosts of dead ancestors and family members, part of an ancient pattern that persists in today’s high-velocity China despite all the new glass-faced high rises and burgeoning numbers of sleek black automobiles. If these fires were the only energy that modern China demanded, then Yunnan’s three great rivers, the Nujiang, the Lancang (Mekong), and the Yangsi might remain free-flowing forever.

But China requires more energy than cheap paper and butane lighters can ever provide. And the fastest-growing country in the history of the world has already made two key commitments to its citizens to provide a middling standard of living, and to the international community to reduce the world’s largest carbon footprint.

A week after I witnessed the sidewalk fires, Zhang Guobao, China’s National Energy Administration director announced that the country plans to boost its hydro-power capacity by 90 percent over the next ten years. The goal is to double to 15 percent the amount of non-fossil fuel energy in China’s energy mix, and also to make good on China’s pledge to cut its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent over the same period. This carbon emissions reduction goal simply cannot be met without ramping up hydro power (as well as all other forms of renewable energy).

What will happen to China’s rivers, ecosystems, and local peoples living within the footprint of the dams and reservoirs? My book, Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River, is my best effort to grapple with these questions. A mere four months after publication, China is about to change the rules of the hydro power game forever. The rivers of Yunnan and Tibet hold the majority of China’s undeveloped hydro megawatts and government officials are about to throw one trillion yuan ($147 billion US) at dam construction over the next half decade(that’s over 10 percent of the entire amount of money spent by the U.S. on its recession-busting fiscal stimulus package—spent on dam construction only).

Five years from now in August, the citizens of Kunming will still be lighting ritual fires to honor their ancestors. By 2020, Yunnan’s rivers may join the list of ghosts to be propitiated.

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About Edward R. Grumbine

R. Edward Grumbine teaches environmental studies at Prescott College and directed the Sierra Institute, University of California Extension, Santa Cruz, for more than a decade.

On the Energy Front, State-censored Chinese Media Trumps U.S. Media

This post is the first in a year-long series by Ed Grumbine, professor of environmental studies at Prescott College and author of Where the Dragon Meets the Angry River.

Only five days into a one year stay in China, I’ve already noticed that the Chinese and U.S. media don’t report the news the same way. What amazed me is that Chinese state-run papers describe China’s economic growth and energy consumption more accurately than the U.S. press.

The past two years have been big years for China’s global position in economics and energy. In 2009, China replaced the U.S. as the largest auto market in the world, and surpassed Germany as the largest exporter of trade goods. Just a few weeks ago, China passed Japan in overall GDP to gain the No. 2 spot behind the U.S. (Japan had held this position since 1968).

In the first six months of 2010, China emitted more greenhouse gases than have ever been measured in a six month period and burned through more total energy than the U.S. (China debates this statistic, but the trend is clear). Almost without exception, the U.S. media portrayed these events as “threats.” The Wall Street Journal labeled China “the world’s most voracious energy consumer” accusing China of “… seeking resource and energy leverage…” in a “global scramble for (fossil fuel) resources.” The New York Times suggests that if China did not meet domestic energy efficiency targets, this “would be a big setback for international efforts to limit (carbon) emissions.” (The NY Times failed to mention that the U.S. doesn’t even have such targets.)

What distinguishes Chinese media accounts from U.S. stories is China’s emphasis on per capita data. Due to the fact that 20 percent of all people on Earth live here, at some point, China will likely surpass all countries in virtually every category of economics and energy use. The only meaningful way to compare nations is through per capita data, and this is what is missing from American reporting.

The Chinese media is quick to point out that China, despite its record-breaking behavior, is still a low-middle income nation according to United Nations definitions. China passed Japan in overall GDP, but each Japanese citizen pulls in ten times more income than the average Chinese. In terms of its human development status, China doesn’t even rank in the top 50 percent of all countries. The Wall Street Journal’s characterization of China as “the world’s most voracious energy consumer” is false; each U.S. citizen consumes about five times more energy that their Chinese counterparts.

What is behind the American media inaccurate portrayals of China? I see two biases at work here. The first bias is symbolic. America is so used to being No. 1 that we find it difficult to accept any position other than ‘leader.’ The second bias is more insidious. There are many U.S. politicians and policy makers who view the world as a zero sum game. If China is rising, everyone else must be falling. Competition—not cooperation—is the hallmark of these “realists, as if China was the new Russia.”

On the street here in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, I see economics and energy embodied all around me. The sheer number of people in the street can be overwhelming. It seems as if there are new buildings rising up on every urban block, and vehicles spew out exhaust while the number of bicycles declines steeply. So far, however, my advice is to take U.S. media reports about China with a hefty dose of soy sauce.

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About Edward R. Grumbine

R. Edward Grumbine teaches environmental studies at Prescott College and directed the Sierra Institute, University of California Extension, Santa Cruz, for more than a decade.