Last year I detailed just how miserable winters can be in China (here). Windows are left open or don’t even close to begin with, buildings lack any kind of insulation, and space heaters are required just to keep your tea from freezing. The problem is that China’s people are now actually expecting to be comfortable at home and work (I don’t blame them), but the amount of energy required to accomplish that is going to be astronomical given the lack of energy efficient buildings.
In fact, just the other day a senior gov’t planner described 95% of China’s new buildings as “energy-guzzling,” and that China is building 2 billion square meters of this type of building each year (that doesn’t account for old buildings which were essentially 100% inefficient). There are an unprecedented 5,000 construction sites in Beijing alone.
Alongside those staggering figures, we see that energy consumption in buildings accounts for roughly 1/3 of China’s energy usage. This figure doesn’t surprise me given the amount of effort it takes to heat my apartment. Even with the windows lined with newspaper and the doors shut, 2 heaters can’t keep my two room apartment at 20° C (68° F), now multiply that by roughly 650 million urban dwellers and you start to see the impact.
Many of China’s major cities now experience “haze” for three to six months each year, with most of those days falling in November, December and January. So it was no coincidence that Beijing’s air first earned the label “Beyond Index” on the AQI scale (perhaps better known as “Crazy bad“) when they switched on the public heating system around this time last year. Note: While researching this article I noticed that the day in question (Nov. 18) is missing from the official record of Beijing’s AQI on the national reporting site (page 12).
It is worrisome because if China does not start to improve the energy efficiency of it’s buildings, ever greater amounts of energy will be wasted heating and cooling cement apartment blocks. And while it’s encouraging to have many clear solutions to a problem that is already being addressed in other countries, the sheer scale at which China has built means that even replacing drafty windows would require mind boggling amounts of materials and the related emissions of CO2.
So at what point does China become trapped? Has it already reached a point where simply operating its completed properties is creating some of the most contaminated air, but manufacturing the products that would make these buildings more efficient would also lead to massive CO2 emissions?
I’m optimistic that the technology needed to overcome this challenge is just around the bend, but as I wrap my fingers around another cup of tea in an effort to restore feeling, I can’t shake the feeling that winter is coming.