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“We need a second Green Revolution”

Steven Chu is a Nobel prize-winning physicist and the US secretary of energy. Here, he tells Sam Geall about energy futures and priorities for policymakers.

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Sam Geall, chinadialogue’s deputy editor, interviewed Steven Chu before his government appointment. They discussed China’s energy future and the responsibilities of policymakers faced with a warming world. Edited excerpts are published below.

Sam Geall: Can countries decouple energy use and emissions without exporting manufacturing?

Steven Chu: In the United States, we offshore some energy intensive industries – plastics, for example. Steel and concrete is slightly offshored, but not as much as you would think, because China is consuming most of its own steel and concrete. We have offshored to some extent, but not completely.

Commercial and residential buildings account for 40% of our energy. Transportation – trains, trucks, air, personal and all the others – is 28%; industry is the last. I believe we can drop down by a factor of four or five in buildings. China’s energy use is 65% buildings, so if they drop down by a similar factor and become really efficient, we can decouple.

There are some industries: steel, cement, aluminum that are very energy intensive. But already in the United States the cement industry has dropped down by about 30% in energy. It’s the same with the chemical industry, again about 25% to 30%. But can they make it all the way to zero? Absolutely not. 

SG: What should policymakers’ priorities be, when it comes to climate change?

SC: The Stern report says there’s a 50% chance that in this century we will go up by five degrees Celsius. The potential downsides of that – and the economic costs – are so enormous that it is prudent insurance to try not to go near it. Try to go one or two degrees Celsius: I think one degree is already written.

People don’t realise six degrees Celsius is the difference between today and the Ice Ages. During the Ice Ages, in what is now the United States, Ohio and Pennsylvania were covered in permanent ice all year round. This is a big change. So five degrees the other way is also a big change. 

Borders of countries that took thousands of years to develop – what do you do with these? Some places will be uninhabitable. There’s a big fear that the agriculture around the equator will collapse. Rich people will always survive, but there will be millions of poor people that could die. 

SG: An energy and climate-change crisis could also cause great conflict.

SC: Sea level goes up. If the northern tundra melts you get this great release of carbon. Greenland will melt, part of Antarctica will melt. In Bangladesh, with 140 million people, half of them could be permanently displaced. Where are they going to go? To India? What’s India going to do? The economic, social and political consequences are huge.

SG: What do we do about coal, which China and the United States are still dependent on? 

SC: We have got to figure out how to use coal in a clean way, which means we have got to figure out how to capture the carbon dioxide. The methods are too expensive. I think we can store it quite safely, but it has to be proven, because the public is going to be very wary. The public doesn’t like windmills, some people don’t like hydro-electric dams, and they certainly don’t like nuclear. The danger of carbon dioxide release, in my mind, is actually greater for life than nuclear. And you would need to have thousands of repositories. So unless you can really demonstrate that they are safe, there is going to be lawsuit after lawsuit and things would be stalled for years. You have got to do research and prove to the public that it is going to be safe. You have got to do research on how to capture it better.

I think investment in carbon sequestration is absolutely needed. I think high temperature metallurgy is needed for more efficient power plants. Right now the most efficient coal burning plants are 40% to 42% efficient. They can go over 50%. And the coal plant efficiency in China is about 30%, and in India it’s even less than 30%. So you can almost double it: that’s a lot.

SG: What would you tell China’s policymakers?

SC: The major issue in China is energy efficiency. They have reasonable mileage standards, but not as good as Europe. They are beginning to close down their very inefficient industries and coal plants. They are trying to do these things more aggressively, so that’s good news.

I think the United States can do the carbon sequestration research. A lot of the research is not intellectual property. It’s just a question of: “we now know how to do it, and they can do it too”. What happens geochemically is something we need to find out, but China can just read the journals. And then perhaps we can co-develop other technologies.

SG: What do you think about biofuels?

SC: Let me just say there’s 101 ways to do it wrong, and a couple of ways to do it right. I am certainly not in favour of foreign ethanol. You want to get off corn as quickly as possible. I’m not in favor of chopping down Indonesian rainforest to grow palm oil. That’s a bigger loser for the climate than leaving the rainforest there.

SG: You have said we need a second Green Revolution.

SC: I think there needs to be a second Green Revolution, because we are not doing agriculture in a sustainable way. We are over-fertilising. There’s a huge greenhouse-gas problem. There’s a water pollution problem. It’s time to have a really hard look at our agricultural practices.

SG: How do we achieve this?

SC: Partly education, partly incentives, partly regulation. A lot of over-fertilising, at least in the United States, comes from ignorance and pushy salesmen. “If this much fertiliser is good, then twice as much is better.” Well, it is better, but maybe only 10% better. And the farmer doesn’t pay for the water pollution problems, and the nitrate runoffs, and all the nitrous oxide that is being generated.

SG: What do you think is at stake at Copenhagen?

SC: The future of the world. Not to sound too melodramatic. I’m very much hoping the United States and the new administration will begin to play a leadership role. If the United States plays a leadership role, I think China and India will follow, because they will suffer more from climate change than we will – and they know that. But I agree that   they can’t do it unless the United States does it first. So if the United States takes a leadership role and is willing to develop and share technology, it would go a long way.

China already is very afraid. They’re beginning to see the consequences of climate change in their water supplies. In northern China, the Yellow River is beginning to run dry; the Tibetan plateau is melting very quickly. They have forest degradation as well. All over the world we’re beginning to see this. And once you lose your forest you lose your watershed area. Trees do something magical to the land, they help hold the water.

SG: What are the key issues that need to be a part of the decision at Copenhagen?

SC: The international price of carbon: we need a way of regulating it so that you make sure there’s a floor. You don’t want the price to crash. There must be ways of limiting it, just as in the US economy there’s a Federal Reserve board that tries to balance things by adjusting interest rates. You could adjust things through how many carbon credits you auction, or a minimum floor for the auction. It’s important for long-term investment. 

We need regulation where the price won’t do it. The price will never make a house with insulation more attractive. There should be inducements – carrot and stick. I think countries have the wisdom to put more research into energy. Denmark understands: they look at industries like their wind power industry and their enzyme industry [for biofuel production] and they are making lots of money. They see this as a business opportunity. 

SG: And a company may hit on something that’s truly transformative.

SC: Yes, and they are going to make a lot of money.

I really hope we can get photovoltaics to work better. There is nothing in the laws of physics that say they cannot be really cheap and 25% efficient. Because of that I think there is more technological headroom in photovoltaics. But it may not work for 10 or 20 years.

Building efficiency could be comparable. One problem is that the people who are supposed to be operating buildings don’t know how to.    I have seen this in my own   laboratory: it was a new building, the people didn’t know how to adjust the heating ventilation system and it would oscillate. It was fighting itself – too hot and too cold – and it went on for two months. Finally someone gave us control of it. They just didn’t know how to operate the building. So you have to make the buildings smart. That I think has a lot of potential. Is it transformative? The results might be.

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue

Steven Chu is currently the 12th United States secretary of energy. Chu won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his research in cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light.  

Homepage photo by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



[email protected]

When did China become a country that consumes so much energy from buildings?

Mr Chu talked about a number of issues. Firstly, that carbon capture and sequestration technologies are extremely important but still not advanced, and there is no knowing when they will be ready to implement; Secondly, the US must take the lead, and I am afraid that only the US can play such a vanguard and exemplary role; Thirdly, carbon pricing is an important issue. In addition, China should increase their pace and actively respond to climate change. I really don’t understand where our buildings consume so much energy? Who provides this data? In the US, the designated temperature of building is 18.3 degrees Celsius (65 degrees Fahrenheit). Chinese don't have such good conditions -- our houses are boxes -- we just move in and live as best we can, never asking for high air circulation, requesting certain levels of indoor air quality and so on. As for lighting, as long as you can see, then it’s good enough. Perhaps the claim that there is some wastage has an element of truth but saying that 60% of our energy use goes on buildings is simply a joke.

The key question is how this industry can save energy. For me, it appears to be all talk. Perhaps nothing will be achieved during the Copenhagen Conference. If the core problem is not clear, how can it be discussed? Perhaps I'm being unduly pessimistic. I hope so. [email protected]
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Sincere and equal cooperation

China's economy is currently still export-oriented. In the context of global economy meltdown, export is decreasing and the rate of unemployment is increasing. This might be an excellent opportunity for China to transform the economy and energy structures. During her visit to China, Hilary described China as a partner in climate cooperation and said she hoped that China and the US could cooperate seriously towards the research and development of carbon sequestration and clean energy technologies. I believe that the US should also be able to make more fair trade agreements so that developing countries could focus on economic development while at the same time controlling energy efficiency.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

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匿名 | Anonymous


http://www.nrdc.org/air/energy/china/greenbuildings.asp -sustainablejohn

succinct and to the point

I like Chu, very succinct, like in his point about biofuels.

"China's energy use if 65% buildings" I think he meant to say 45%... (this is including all the energy required to make and transport the materials to build the building, construct, operate and deconstruct)


Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



My opinion is confirmed

Last night I happened to have dinner with some officials from Ministry of Energy, the Department of Industry and Information Technology. I asked them how much the industrial energy consumption counted in the national total. They gave me two conflicting answers. One was that the Department of Construction put buildings energy consumption at 70% of the national total, while the other was that the Department of Industry and Information Technology considered industrial energy consumption counting for 70% of the national total. The disparity was reportedly due to different criteria adopted by the two departments in their calculations. According to that of the Department of Construction, any standing construction, - even a shed - was to be counted as “buildings”. Therefore, except for open-air factories, such as petrochemical infrastructure and quarries, the energy consumption of all other constructions was to be counted as “building energy consumption”. This reflects the reality of China, that is, people vie for No. 1 ranking in any field. The result is that every one, foreigners and Chinese alike, are confused. Can you decide which one is closer to the fact, my dear reader? (translated by Yang bin)

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匿名 | Anonymous


(Jacob Fromer翻译)

I agree with green

It is very nice to see that even big truck and automotive companies, boom trucks, crane trucks, etc,etc switching over to going Green. Everyone has to play there part and this is a great example of how to do it.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

崇尚科学 传播文明

人 类文明的发展,离不开科学,而科学技术的发展,离不开敢为天下先的精神。

Advocate science and spread culture

Laozi said" I have three treasured objects: kindness, thrift and daring not to precede the world. Although this adage is spoken highly of, as a matter of fact, it is no more than an amulet. Daring not to precede the world is daring not to explore and strive for originality, which is a big enemy for the development of science. In my opinion, everyone should have the courage to be the first in these rapidly developing times. Daring to be the first is the motive of scientific development. Whether in the history of China or the world, the advances and development of science can both embody those people who advocate science and that spirit of daring to be the first. The development of human's culture can not be held separate from science. Furthermore the development of scientific technology can not be realized without this spirit. On April 6th 1880, a commentary in the New York Times said Edison's electric light couldn't match the vapor lamp and that because eight electric bulbs need a generator to work, it would require 250,000 generators to power the whole of New York. However, a generator costs $400 and an investment of $500-700 million in total. Apparently, this is impossible. This report quoted authorized opinions of a famous expert in electrics who commented that electric light would disappear with Edison before long, after momentary prosperity.

However, Edison, with his spirit and diligence on the project, completed his generating factory and it began to operate, providing electricity for several districts across New York and Philadelphia. These kinds of examples are numerous. In foreign cultures, there have been many adventurers. For example, Chinese Shennong, who risked his life tasting hundreds of different herbal medicines, with an unprecedented disregard for his own life, for the sake of future generations. Also, there was Bruno who irritated the Roman tribunal ruled by pontiff who believed in geocentric theory in order to uphold heliocentric theory put forward and established by Copernicus. Finally, he was tied by the executioners to the iron pole in Rome square and burnt to death. After foreign experts were withdrawn halfway, Chinese scientists strived on the desert and produced the first A-bomb and stroke back strongly. Today with the policy of reform and openness, our scientists dare to set foot onto paths that haven't been trod by others such as genetic engineering, superconductor fields, carrier rockets and the research and design on mainframe computers, which have allowed China to take the lead in these fields.

It is not strange in China - breeding an ear on mouse's head and the cloned sheep and cow. It is true that creativity, exploration and the spirit of daring to be the first are the pulses of social revolutions. Without the first person who ate the crab, there would be no such rich meals now. But for those undaunted explorers, humanity couldn't have survived this long. We need to praise the pioneers and the courage of scientists or explorers. It is because of the inventions and creations of the pioneers that science can develop, society can advance and cultures can be elevated. Those with conformism who don’t think of progress will never experience the joys of the innovators. Times are advancing, society is making progress and cultures are developing. In the 21st century, strong countries are like extensive forests. What appearance China will show to stand proudly in the family of nations. The spirit is more important however, and more dependent on the quality of the people. Chinese people need education and in order to achieve this, all we can do is to upgrade our cultural and scientific ability and our ideological and ethical standards. The times need us - the new generation who are brave enough to explore. We are more in need of the spirit of daring to be the first, while appreciating the creative and exploratory achievements made by predecessors. We will live up to the ancients' expectations and have a clear conscience to the posterity with exploitation, enterprising spirit, explorations, creativity and the spirit of daring to be the first.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Industrial shift: A bit of alarmist talk

During the process of globalization, the United States is one of many countries who consume a lot of energy and pollute a lot. That’s why their industries have shifted to China, a developing country. Could it be that it is suitable to call this a form of emissions reduction? I’m afraid it isn’t. The consequences of pursuing the advantages of capitalism are that developing countries become the scapegoats for developed countries who have transferred their development costs. The so called happy prospects of globalization become pale and useless when the cost of a multinational environmental crisis is considered. Imagine for a minute, when air pollution reaches the level where it makes human unable to breathe, what kind of democracy will we be talking about? When the soil is poisoned, where will there be economic development? When the poisonous garbage of the developed countries is dumped on the poor countries’ coasts, where will international law be? (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Efficiency first!

Looking at the conditions within China, with regards to efficiency, China is able to write good articles and bring about some comparatively large successes, but looking at the long term, this is nowhere near enough. We should not go down the old road that developed countries have already trodden, even if we do, we must walk it differently and more cleverly. We must incorporate China's situation into our plans more when we set them out and when we begin to implement them. We must work hard to turn a few slogans and concepts into true capability and momentum to follow the path of sustainable development. (YZHK) (Translated by Jodie Gardiner)

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回顾之时,这些事情的重要性一如朱先生所试图言说的一样。哥本哈根会议是一个完全的灾难——它试图从发展国家与发展中国家之间谈判出一条显著减轻污染的道路。不幸的是,我们等待改变所耗的时间愈长,想要改变效果就愈加困难。诸如bucket trucks的公用设施,应当如高污染企业一样被列入条例之中。一切都应被限制——无论是大型污染者,还是小型污染户。

Looking Back

Looking back, these issues were as important as Mr. Chu made them out to be. The conference in Copenhagen was a complete and utter disaster when it comes to negotiating a way for developed and un-developed countries to moderate their pollution by a significant amount. Unfortunately, the longer we wait to make these significant changes, the harder it will be to reverse the effects. Utility equipment like bucket trucks, should be regulated as much as high polluting factories. Everything should be limited from the biggest polluters to the smallest polluters.

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The method which is left for us in capturing of carbon dioxide and packing it into a solid container. There is no source of energy left for us that is entirely green and do not pollute. Used Cars for sale and old cars on the roads are the major source of environmental pollution and should be banned