Sunday, October 24, 2021

Russia and China: Can they survive without fossil fuels?

Satellite image: Indigo Satellite

Ed Yong, technology reporter for the BBC and the Guardian, has filed a fascinating report on the situation in China. Just how did the country go from a power giant to a chaotic power supply nightmare? It all started in the 1990s as China joined the club of a handful of relatively wealthy countries with all of the benefits and costs. It quickly started looking for ways to eliminate carbon emissions by mining resources. From Inner Mongolia to Ningxia – its traditional home – it pioneered drilling for shale oil and gas in remote areas with few resources, promising massive profits and an economy that was run around making money. But a very strange and unintended consequence of that strategy has been a surge in use of technology and fossil fuels, including coal and oil. In the first years of Chinese membership of the WTO, the green world cried foul. But it was a price we were willing to pay. Shale oil and gas supplies are starting to tighten “Now they want to do something about it – and the costs of energy are so expensive, they are able to pay the bills,” says Patrick Pittman, an expert on technology migration at Oxford University. Shale oil and gas, the cars and the factories of the rapidly industrialising country are starting to run out of petrol. And so are coal, gas and oil. But what’s driving all of this? What’s driving the energy consumption in a country that could have coped much better? And what can it learn from the US that has actually managed to put a plan in place to get ahead of its energy shortfall? Here are some of the factors he addresses: Environmental worries may be becoming more important To be really all that bad, our oil and gas guzzlers have to burn oil. If that threat comes into play, and prices continue to increase, this threatens the longer-term health of the economy. Meanwhile, other critics of fracking, an important part of China’s fossil fuel push, warn that the move from coal to oil and gas will displace renewable energy production. A finite planet Since the 1970s, there’s been an observation that the planet was not growing at a fast enough rate to sustain our insatiable energy appetite. If we don’t stay on track, then there could be climate problems. There are also countless disputes in the world over rights to fossil fuels that have been caught up in the coming battles. Add the location of fossil fuel reserves, the growing use of renewables, and the cost of extraction and the pressures on China to find ways to boost energy efficiency, then China is confronted with a much greater challenge. Even if it can overcome the daunting trendline, it is doubtful that it will be able to ignore the long-term pressure.

• Ed Yong’s China: The tale of fossil fuels, opening tonight at 9pm on BBC Two

Latest article