Icarus in China

A bland photo of solar panels in China has hidden meanings.

Not another solar blog post … Trust me, this isn’t really about solar but about imagery and power.

The photo:
Panels ChinaScreenshot_1
At first sight, the only surprising thing about this image from China is the standard of the middle-class houses.

Here’s the accompanying story, from the English website of Xinhua, published on 9 April:

Photo taken on April 8, 2013 shows solar panels of a homemade photovoltaic power station made by a local resident named Mo Zhikai in Wumeng Village of Ningbo City, east China’s Zhejiang Province.

The 27-year-old Mo, an enthusiastic fan of photovoltaic power generation, installed over 70 solar panels with the capacity of 7.5 kilowatt on the roof of his own house and garage in 2009. Yet these panel were left unused as they were not allowed to be incorporated into the State Grid. Things changed as the State Grid Corporation of China released a document on Feb. 27, 2013, encouraging distributed generation to be incorporated into the State Grid. Staff members of Ningbo Power Bureau came to Mo’s village for a survey of Mo’s homemade photovoltaic power generation equipments on Monday. Mo will have the first homemade photovoltaic power station in Ningbo if everything goes smooth in 35 workdays.

Just a cute human-interest story to fill the pages? Possibly; I don’t think so though. (Alert: data-thin armchair speculation below the jump)

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Urban Pollution Progress in China?

In the September 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Literature, Siqi Zheng and I have a new paper titled “Understanding China’s Urban Pollution Dynamics”.     Our paper’s abstract is presented below the fold.   This paper lays out the broad plan for our 2014 University of Chicago Press book tentatively titled; “Blue Skies in China?”.

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Mending news

In his keynote speech last Thursday to the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist party, retiring President Hu Jintao said:

Energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP as well as the discharge of major pollutants should decrease sharply.

Source: Leslie Hook for the Financial Times (paywall); summarised here.
This wasn´t a toe-dipping aside like Obama´s. A lot of the speech was similar bold talk about pollution, energy and the environment.

We´ll see what Hu´s anointed successor Xi Jinping has to say at the end of the week, but we can take it for granted that this is the new party line. The baton being passed is green-tipped.

China has already taken huge strides to expand renewable energy – the latest targets for 2015, only 3 years away, include 100 GW for wind, 21 GW for solar, 13 GW for biomass, and a frankly incredible 50 GW for ocean energy and 120 GW for geothermal-and-tidal power lumped strangely together. But SFIK internationally Chinese oficials have always framed their plans as leading to reductions in the carbon intensity of GDP, not absolute reductions. China has finally joined the club of climate realists, and President Obama now has a wide opening for new climate diplomacy.

And hats off to the millions of Chinese environmental activists and protestors who have forced the oligarchy to change course.

Thumb-running in China?

A theory – from a usually unreliable source – about the murder of Neil Heywood by the wife of the Communist Party boss of Congquing.

One of the odd bits about living in Washington is that the street newsboxes have not one but two English-language papers about Chinese affairs: China Times, which stands to the CCP about as Fox News stands to the Republican Party, and Epoch Times, which is affiliated with the banned Falun Gung religious movement.

In the months since the Chongquing saga featuring dead British grifter Neil Heywood, local party boss (and failed competitor for national power) Bo Xilai, his wife Gu Kailai (who has now been convicted of Heywood’s murder) and, Bo’s sidekick and police chief Wang Lijun, who suddenly tried to take refuge in the local U.S. consulate, China Times studiously covered ribbon-cuttings and statistics on the rice harvest while Epoch Times published one lurid story after another. (Today the on-line China Times reports on Wang’s trial by printing a Xinhua press release that doesn’t mention Bo at all.)

From the beginning, the greatest puzzle seemed to be what Heywood could possibly have known that made killing him seem like a good idea. Epoch Times has now offered a theory, though without providing any evidence: that Gu and Bo were involved in the traffic in organs for transplant “harvested” from unconsenting victims. That seems to meet the criterion of something worth killing to cover up, but since Epoch Times wants you to believe that the CCP is the source of all evil in the world I don’t put any great credence in its reporting.

Does any reader know anything that could sustain or refute the charge?

Unmusical chairs and Chinese whispers

A fine image of the dilemma of authority in China.

The preordained successor to Hu Jintao at the top of the government of China, Vice-President Xi Jinping, disappeared for two weeks in early September, cancelling a meeting with Hillary Clinton. He’s back in circulation but no official explanation has been offered. A mid-level insider, the former leader of Hong Kong, has offered that Mr. Xi hurt his back engaging in some sport or other. Possible; but so are the conspiracy theories that it was a last-minute power struggle.

Why else should the date of the Party congress – in October! – to ratify the handover not been fixed? The guy responsible for the logistics of assembling 2270 delegates must be tearing his hair out and wishing he’d never pushed for the job. The sabre-rattling and demonstrations against Japan over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islets have probably been orchestrated by somebody, though they may rebound on the whole leadership.

The visible confusion and sense of dangerous undercurrents made me think of this work by the Chinese artist Shao Fan from 2005, in the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

“King chair” by Shao Fan, V&A, London

Photo JW

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Showing and telling

The current ambassador to China, Gary Locke, is teaching the Chinese some useful stuff without a word of preaching or assertion, mainly by carrying his own bags and flying economy, and being seen to do so.  The German for ambassador is botschafter, which means message carrier, and Locke’s story nicely enlarges our idea of how a message can most effectively be embodied.

I really like this story, including the inept, hamhanded response of the Chinese élites. Locke is giving the usual speeches as well, of course; I especially like this bit:

“I’ve sometimes asked myself: ‘How did the Locke family go in just two generations from living in a small rural village in China to the governor’s mansion?’ ” Locke said in a Sept. 9 speech to students at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “The answer is American openness — building and sustaining an open economy and an open society.”

“Our family’s story is the story of America,” Locke said. And, in a subtle challenge to China to become more open, he added, “we believe these values are independent of any particular political system. They are universal, and universally beneficial to societal advance.”

What the story doesn’t say is that Locke’s attribution of his status to a whole system and not to his own personal merit is also a subtle challenge to our own 1%, who seem to think everything they own was value they created alone, and are busily sawing the rungs out of the ladder.

Two Cheers for Clean Coal

We need to invest in carbon sequestration not for our sake — but for India and China.

I think it’s terrific that the Coen Brothers are making funny, effective ads against relying on “clean coal” as part of the US energy program. But I worry that the clean energy community is really missing the boat here.

Clean coal research and development is absolutely crucial in fighting climate change not for us, but for India and China. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world — most of it very dirty, with high ash content. It currently imports 70% of its oil, which will rise to 90% by 2020 (this according to Edward Luce’s fabulous book In Spite of the Gods.). China, meanwhile, is both the world’s largest producer and the largest consumer of coal power.

I want them to switch to solar and wind as much as anyone else. But I have yet to see any credible estimates that India or China can grow in the way that they want to — and justifiably expect to — purely through renewables. It’s going to be hard enough for the United States to do so, and we still rely heavily on oil.

It is thus in the US interest to push for clean coal development not for us, but for India and China. Without it, they will either continue to burn dirty coal, or start competing with the west for oil supplies. Isn’t the latter good? Don’t we want the price of oil to go up? Yes, but through a carbon tax, not through giving more money to the Saudis or the Iranians (and then borrowing from the Chinese to pay for it).

It is reasonable — and necessary — for the United States to get rid of dirty coal plants. But we can’t expect two poor countries to bear the cost of getting rid of dirty coal for a global public good like climate change mitigation. That means the United States needs to invest in carbon sequestration technology — and in a big way. It doesn’t mean that we should build more coal-fired plants, but as the MIT Future of Coal study noted, the federal government does need to substantially increase its R & D, and coordinate these efforts far better than it has done in the past.

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has noted that “the quest for energy security is second only in our scheme of things to our quest for food security.” New Delhi (and presumably Beijing) will not stop burning coal just because we want them to do so. We need to help. Rejecting a sensible investment strategy here is going in exactly the wrong direction.


On naming K2.

While everybody’s waiting for the Pennsylvania primary results, let me fill the time by continuing my Clever Plan to destabilise the illegitimate Chinese government with symbolic pinpricks.

Jonathan Kulick reminded us in March of the peculiarly unimpressive name of the world’s second highest mountain : K2. It’s 8,611 metres high in the Karakorum range of the western Himalayas, and is far harder to climb than the 8,848m Everest. K2 has killed 66 mountaineers against 277 who have made it to the summit (1:4), Everest 210 against 2,436 (1:12).


© the late Klaus Dierks, used by permission

When European explorers and mountaineers first penetrated this desolate region, they claimed that the local Baltis had no name for the mountain, and adopted the provisional K2 (Karakorum peak 2). Later they invented a Balti name, Chogori (“big mountain”), now taken up by the recent Chinese owners as Qogori. The Baltis, says Wikipedia, have never used this name and have localised K2 into Ketu. The late Raj’s Mount Godwin Austen has mercifully fallen into disuse. So what should we call this Very Big Mountain?

Continue reading “Ketu”

Offending Smaug

In defence of street protests over Tibet against the Olympic torch relay.

The Olympic torch relay (or security sack race) faces Australian protesters on Thursday: the security bill alone has doubled to A$2m. It’s been kept quiet in other places – Delhi, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur, by the massive police presence you would expect for a state visit by say George Bush. Jakarta tomorrow will take the idea to its logical conclusion by simply excluding the public. In Japan the start will be moved from a historic Buddhist temple, which has pulled out, to a city car park.

A few days ago Kevin Drum poured realist cold water on the Tibet Olympic protests:

What’s more, if we are going to bash China, Darfur is a better topic than usual to bash them about. Unlike Tibet, which China will flatly never give in on, their behavior in Darfur is quite possibly malleable.


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Olympic protests

The protesters against the Olympic torch relay are right.

The International and Chinese Olympic committees have sleepwalked into a marvellous PR disaster over their 20-country torch relay. Pro-Tibet protesters disrupted the London and Paris legs, and are set to repeat the show in San Francisco today. And there’s lots more to come. The IOC have already started to shift the blame to the Chinese committee.

Good for the protesters say I – not just because the London ones included my daughter. These protests are nicely targeted: not at the future competitors and spectators, who have a legitimate interest in the holding of the games, but entirely at the vanity and cynicism of the organizers.

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