Can the world afford China’s heating bill?

Yesterday we were looking at how cold it is outdoors and in here in China. Today I want to get to the meat of the problem that lies just beyond that thought. Is it possible for China (or any country) to develop without destroying the fragile environment?

I’ll start with something I’m not so proud of; my wife and I are currently running 3 space heaters full blast, all the time. Not because we’re trying to recreate the climate of sunny Florida, or even temperate San Francisco, this is just what it takes to keep our apartment from feeling like winter in Minnesota. At the office we also have two heaters running non-stop, and still I have to pause between sentences to hold my hot cup of tea.

My other co-worker, Jasmine, told me the other day that it was only a few years ago that office workers would wear 4-5 layers and tough out the frigid days in the office. Now though everyone is starting to expect the office to be at least comfortable with only 2 layers. Oh the things I had taken for granted before coming to China.

The big problem is that heating is a new thing for most of the people living in southern China, since a long time ago the govt. decided that we didn’t need central heating. So it is common for people to still leave windows open while the heater is on. I also spend a good chunk of time every day getting up from my desk and closing the door behind the people who leave it flung wide open, or closing the bathroom windows that blow less than fresh air down the hall.  I wonder how long it will be before fathers in China start carefully guarding the thermostat, and sarcastically ask their child, “Are you trying to heat the outdoors?”

So rising wealth in China is now allowing more people to buy heaters for their apartments, and we south of the Yangtze will no longer freeze each winter. I think we could agree generally that people not freezing to death is progress. At the same time, when I look at the high-rise apartment blocks and see all of the individual heating units whirring, I hate to think of the amount of energy and burning coal it takes to keep me and the rest of the middle class warm.

13 responses to “Can the world afford China’s heating bill?”

  1. Dan says:

    Just think of what will happen when the government makes air conditioning mandatory for all people living in southern China!

    • Tom says:

      I know you’re joking, but actually Thomas Friedman mentioned something like this in his book “Hot, Flat and Crowded”. He mentioned a few years ago the govt. issued a policy that govt. buildings should not be air-conditioned below 27C, but local journalists discovered that virtually no one was following it.
      Also Beijing’s worst air pollution day this year was the day the heat came on.

  2. Roverxie says:

    I think you should stop worring what China’s engery demand may do to the environment. We will have enough engery saved for the poor Chinese people to enjoy a better life if only you (I assume you are an American) can ask your fellows to wear 3 or maybe 4 layers instead of 2 during winter, to turn AC up 2 degrees in all homes, shopping malls, office buildings, goverment buildings, schools, etc. during summer, to ride a bicycle or bus to work instead of driving a car, SUV or pickup.

    Don’t be a hypocrite westerner!

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Rover for your comments. My blog is focused on China so that’s what I talk about. My hope is that people reading the blog (mostly Americans) realize how good we have it, and start to make a few sacrifices on their own. As you’ll see at the end of the article I said this was a dilemma, in that surely it is a good thing that Chinese people have a more comfortable life.

      • Roverxie says:

        Thank you for the reply and wish you an enjoyable stay in Nanjing. Just out of curiosity, which hospital do you work at?

      • Tom says:

        Sorry I had to edit your comment Rover, I don’t like to do that, but I want to provide my coworkers with privacy since from time to time we discuss sensitive issues. Also this blog is not affiliated with my hospital, so I don’t want to get them involved.
        I also hope you took time to read today’s post.

    • E Fertik says:

      Americans just pay the market price for heating fuel (or electricity for air-conditioning). If you want to manipulate market prices (or the currencies the they are priced in), don’t complain about the results.

  3. Bill says:

    Do people still burn the cylindrical high-sulfer, soft-coal brickettes with the holes drilled downward throughout so that the whole thing burns at once, thereby creating the maximum amount of heat – and sulfer dioxide?

    • Tom says:

      In Guangxi this was one of the primary sources of heat, both for the home and for cooking. In a few restaurants it was so thick in the air that it felt a bit like tear gas. I would eat as fast as I could and then run outside to recover.

    • soaringdragons says:

      Just so you can save typing, the “cylindrical high-sulfer, soft-coal brickettes with the holes drilled downward throughout” the Chinese call “honey-comb coal,” for obvious reasons. Cheers!

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