Shanghai: At the mouth of the mighty Yangtze, halfway between Beijing and Hong Hong is China’s biggest city – indeed the world’s biggest by population (if suburbs are excluded). Yet Shanghai is (literally) a breath of fresh air after Beijing. It feels less crowded, the traffic is more considerate and the roads are a more manageable width, it’s warmer and wetter – a relief from the dry acrid chill – and it’s far, far prettier.
The city is an interesting mix of wooden 16th-century Chinese buildings and gardens, European 19th- and early 20th-century grand statements and residential terraces, and the glass-clad sky-piercing architecture that has come to characterise the 21st-century.
The gardens and parks here, while as regimented and stylised as a silk screen print, include a welcome variety of trees and flowers – elsewhere, the monotony of lines of poplars are relieved only by those Lego conifers or a rare silver birch.
People here are better educated, more people speak some English, they are wealthier and healthier, with men and women living to 80 and 84 yrs, although with the current trend for chain-smoking, I suspect those impressive ages will drop.
I’m staying in a great Victorian institution, in good company: Charlie Chaplin, Einstein and Bertrand Russell have all stayed here. From my window I can see big fancy cars gliding past the Russian embassy, an old man pulling a handcart piled high with wooden sheets, pedal and electric bicycles, weaving with mopeds among vegetable sellers and suited businessmen. Above it all are the bright lights of a big city whose per capita energy consumption is higher than New York or London’s.
I’ve come to China, in part, to look at one of the most pressing questions of our time: how will China provide its people the benefits of development that Shanghai residents enjoy without sacrificing further the environment on which it (and we all) depends?
I’ve learned of all sorts of impressive attempts by the government to clean up its coal stations, capture the carbon dioxide emitted – including one facility here in Shanghai that can apparently capture a whopping 100,000 tonnes of CO2 – of attempts to store the greenhouse gas in saline aquifers in Inner Mongolia, or oil fields in the Bohai Sea. There are wind farms carpeting the Gobi desert, and solar PV farms scattered across the country, geothermal projects in Tibet, including plans to use a screw-expander technique to generate power from warm, subterranean water or to recover energy lost in heat from factories…
But as the Western car industry vies for the lucrative Chinese market, a country with very little oil, China is experimenting with filthy coal-to-oil technology, while scaling back its electric vehicle ambitions.
Building a green economy was never going to be easy. As Changhua Wu, director of the Climate Group, says: “China might be able to leapfrog over some industrial or technological stages, but it can’t leapfrog over the costs involved in deploying the latest clean options.”
China doesn’t have any choice but to take environmental issues seriously, however as a poor country rapidly developing, it hasn’t been given – or asked for – handouts from richer nations.
As the Guardian‘s Asia correspondant Jon Watts says: “China is trying to do something without precedent in world history: it is trying to decarbonise its economy even before it has finished industrialising.”
Let’s hope it succeeds.
In the morning, I’m heading firmly into the future, taking the Shanghai Maglev train. At 431 km per hour, it’s the world’s fastest commercial train and faster than an Formula 1 car!