Like most Canadians, I’ve never lived in China or even visited there. So, like most Canadians, I have a hard time coming to grips with the enormous size of its population.
China is a country of 1.4 billion people, the most populous nation in the world — although it may soon be overhauled by India with its population of 1.3 billion.
Ask yourself: How do you house that many people? How do you feed them? How do you care for them when they’re ill? And how does a country of that size deal with the reality of a warming world?
More than half of that immense population now lives in cities, with the result that there are more than 100 Chinese cities with populations exceeding one million people each. Most of those cities are powered largely by coal, which explains the persistent smog problem that plagues cities like Beijing, its capital.
It may sound counterintuitive but the government chose to attack the problem first by building more coal-fired power plants. That would serve the country while it did two things. First, it set out to make the transition to a service economy rather than a manufacturing economy. Then it set about developing renewable energy.
As a result, the country has shelved plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants this year. Even before that, China’s consumption of coal had dropped by 40 per cent in the past six years according to figures from the consulting firm of Wood Mackenzie.
Now there is word that a new city will be developed that will run entirely on renewable energy.
The Chinese government has billed the new city Xiongan as a smart city and as a tech hub. By the time it is built out it will cover something like 2,000 square kilometres.
Let’s put that into perspective. In Ontario the Greater Toronto Area is about 5,900 square kilometres. On the West Coast, the Vancouver metro area is about 2,900 square kilometres.
The new city, not far from Beijing, is expected eventually to have about 2.5 million people. The Chinese government is hoping it will be close enough to ease congestion in Beijing, which houses 21.5 million people.
U.S. investment banker Morgan Stanley has said the plan could attract as much as 2.4 trillion yuan (C$550 billion) of investment over the next decade.
Not all of China’s new cities are successful. Indeed, some are called "ghost cities," because people haven’t been attracted to them for a number of reasons, including the lack of employment opportunities. Some, however, have been highly successful.
In southern China, the sprawling city of Shenzhen, not far from Hong Kong, has moved aggressively to cut its use of coal to slightly less than half of the city’s energy needs. The rest comes from a mix of hydro, nuclear, solar and wind energy that emits no greenhouse gases.
The city’s fleet of taxis is all electric.
Liang Xieofeng, an official with the China Southern Power Grid, was recently quoted in the Seattle Times as saying "it’s very ambitious — the goal is to get cleaner and cleaner."
While all this city-building has been going on, China replaced the United States last year as the world’s biggest producer of renewable energy. Green technology, in general, is a growing domestic industry and is proving to be a lucrative export opportunity for Chinese solar, wind and electric vehicle companies.
Of course, cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtze River, are right on the seacoast, much like Miami is in Florida. And government officials have long realized that rising sea levels pose an existential threat to millions of people.
That’s why Wang Xining, of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Seattle Times that "climate change is a challenge to everyone."
"There is no way back, and China will push forward."
Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.