Friday, September 17, 2004

Some good news, and some bad

Slowly but surely Asia switches on to green power

China, the world's largest oil consumer after the United States, has ambitious plans to boost renewable energy use that include raising wind power generating capacity from 570 megawatts today to 20,000 megawatts by 2020 and 50,000 megawatts by 2030.

One megawatt of electricity can supply 1,000 homes.

A push to use more biofuels such as marsh gas, straw, sugarcane residue and garbage to fuel power plants could eventually save China 28 million tonnes of coal a year.

In Japan, one of the world's top oil importers, automakers are investing in fuel cells to power new models using hydrogen, though costs remain out of reach for ordinary motorists.

India's prime minister urged scientists and officials last month to speed up development of renewable energy sources for Asia's third largest oil consumer. ...

India's Ministry for Non-conventional Energy Sources has estimated the country has a potential to generate 80,000 megawatts from renewable sources yet produces only 5,000, half from windmills.

Pakistan is turning to wind power and several foreign companies are vying to set up windfarms. Bangladesh, too, is studying wind power and hopes to promote greater use of solar cells in remote villages.

The Philippine government is to start work on its first sugar-fuelled power plant next year. Already, in July, government vehicles started using a one percent blend of coconut methyl ester in their diesel.

The country, already the world's second top producer of geothermal power, wants to boost investment further in that sector to help meet power shortages.

Indonesia, too, is turning to geothermal power to help meet its 10 percent annual growth demand for electricity, while Thailand wants to replace regular gasoline with a mix that includes 10 percent ethanol and aims to raise daily consumption of ethanol 12-fold by 2006.

These measures only represent a small portion of the energy requriements of these countries, but at least they show an awareness of the need to switch to renewables.

The bad news is that new crop patterns are destroying the fertility of the soil, a problem more basic than even energy.

After just five years, fields growing fruit and vegetables are becoming more acidic and barren, while nitrogen and phosphorus levels and fungal epidemics are rising sharply.

Since 1998, the area of land in China devoted to grain crops has fallen by 15 per cent. In August, Beijing confirmed that grain yields have fallen by a fifth in that time, and consumption in 2004 is expected to exceed production by a record 37 million tonnes. This demand for imported grain has triggered a 30 per cent rise in global grain prices in 2004, and further rises are expected as Chinese demand soars.

The root problem is that China is urbanising fast. Already 500 million Chinese live in towns and cities, and the government wants that to rise to 800 million by 2020. Cities are spreading across former farmland and are getting first call on scarce water resources. ...

The changes in soil chemistry have been accompanied by an equally dramatic decline in soil bacteria and an epidemic of fungus. The deterioration is worst when the crops are grown under plastic.

These changes are starting to hit vegetable yields and quality. "Some plants show abnormal growth, deformed fruits and various plant diseases which are not easy to control by the usual pesticides," says Cao Zhihong of the Institute of Soil Science. There is, in addition, "wide concern because of possible groundwater and well drinking water pollution by leached nitrates and phosphates". Already, a third of well water exceeds government norms for nitrate.

"Anything that disrupts microbial activity and function in soil could be expected to affect long-term soil productivity, and have serious consequences," says Rui Yin, a co-author of the studies.

Thirty years ago the Club of Rome warned us about the dangers of a population overshoot. Optimists will say that technology will provide solutions, but the Chinese experience is proving that for every solution there is a new problem.


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