Rethinking China’s bioenergy future

China is increasingly looking to bioenergy to meet the needs of its growing economy. But its energy strategy should not overlook the poor, says Gan Lin, who argues that small-scale biomass projects can bring great benefits to rural communities.

China is currently in a phase of rapid industrialisation and integration into the world economy. But this has come at a high price, putting great strain on the environment through extensive use of fossil fuels and other natural resources. The difference in living standards between urban and rural areas – and between the east and west of the country – has also widened, and unemployment is rising fast. Many are concerned that China’s long-term prosperity could be harmed by increasing social inequality and conflicts resulting from environmental pressures and eco-system degradation. Unemployment is projected tohit 100 million by 2010, and most of these people will be in the poor western regions, where farmers are desperately trying to survive and seek better lives for their families. It is clear that China needs alternative solutions for its ailing agricultural sector, which some 900 million farmers depend on.

Agriculture in China has developed at a much slower pace than industry over the past two decades, which has led to increasing inequality between rural and urban residents. The majority of migrant workers in China’s cities come from rural areas for economic reasons:  low income from farming and land loss due to urban expansion and increased mechanisation of agricultural production. Sustainable rural development in China’s west is faced with major challenges: farmers still lag behind in income compared to residents of coastal regions; ecosystems are vulnerable; poverty is persistent; and the majority of farmers rely on agriculture residues, forest biomass or coal-burning for cooking and space heating, which can have severe health effects as a result of indoor air pollution. Above all, current reliance on the exploration of industrial raw materials and burning fossil fuels cannot make farmers rich, but instead pollutes their living environment, as well as damaging their land and their means of making a living.

The Chinese government has realised how urgently it needs an alternative solution. Under the banner of creating a “harmonious society”, the government is looking into new options for sustainable rural development, utilising resources more efficiently, prioritising new and renewable energy technologies with wider market applications. With its vast territory and diverse geographical regions, China has a large stock of biomass resources from agricultural and forest residues, as well as vast areas of wasteland that can be used for bioenergy development, such as small and decentralised electricity and heat generation, household applications and biofuels cultivation.

Bioenergy development has become a top government priority, and China’s law on renewable energy was implemented in January 2006. The current focus is on electricity generation from surplus agricultural residues, which are estimated at 200 million tonnes yearly. The government has set up a long-term target of 30 gigawatts of electricity generated from biomass by 2020, which will require billions of dollars in investment. There is also a growing interest in the development of biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, intended to reduce oil imports, which currently account for more than 46% of China’s total oil supply – a major energy security concern for the government. This explains the Chinese government’s surprise announcement that it will import one million tonnes of ethanol each year from Brazil, a development that no doubt paves the way for new business opportunities in China and the rest of the world.

However, this strategy is being defined too narrowly, and poor and disadvantaged social groups are still being overlooked. While biomass-burning power plantscould help improve the quality of life for poor people living in remote areas without access to electricity, the current plan is to build dozens of demonstration biomass power plants in economically-developed regions, such as in eastern China’s Jiangsu province and Shandong province. Rural residents will only benefit from bioenergy development if it comes to where they live and takes their daily needs into account.

In some regions, farmers suffer from the severe health impacts of coal burning at home. Fluoride poisoning is a common health problem in Guizhou province, where some 19 million poor farmers are affected, mostly women, children and the elderly – often from minority ethnic groups. Most farmers also still use biomass for cooking and heating in the traditional way, especially in poor and remote regions, while farmers in richer coastal regions are shifting towards the use of commercial energies such as coal and natural gas. Traditional biomass burning wastes a lot of energy, since the efficiency rate of a typical family stove is around 5% to 8%. One rural family I spoke to in the Northwestern Yunnan Province use an average of 14 to 16 tonnes of firewood every year, causing real damage to natural forests. By contrast, modern biomass stoves can achieve 30% to 40% efficiency rates. The use of these stoves can therefore benefit the global environment, save on resources and increase revenues for rural enterprises.   

China needs to make a massive transition from traditional to modern uses of biomass as part of its strategy for sustainable rural development. This act of leapfrogging requires innovative policy support from the government. It can benefit farmers by improving their health and living conditions, reduce fossil fuel use, create jobs and generate income. Today, most of the country’s agricultural residues are burnt in the fields, causing air pollution and wasting resources. In addition to other environmental and social benefits, the same amount of investment in household biomass utilisation as in biomass power plants could generate five to 10 times more local jobs for rural residents and five to nine times more income for small companies.  

The Chinese government has so far paid scant attention to these issues, particularly on how to use biomass resources more efficiently. Strong policy incentives should be established to provide favourable conditions for investments from innovators and small enterprises involved in the social and technological transition towards sustainable rural development. These energy policies could also play a large role in mitigating climate change and moving China away from burning dirty coal.

Supporting household biomass use could ease the pressure on rapid urban development as rural communities start to improve in their living conditions. At the international level, bioenergy has become a dynamic force, with governments, industry, aid agencies and private investors all seeing China as a “land of opportunity” for investment. By integrating greenhousegas emissions reduction with the sustainable development of rural energy systems, China can set an example for other biomassrich developing countries as they strive for the combined benefits of social development and environmental protection.


Dr. Gan Lin is a senior research fellow at CICERO (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo).

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