Winter is coming…and it’s bringing global warming

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.

15 responses to “Winter is coming…and it’s bringing global warming”

  1. kjsandor says:

    While I will admit to being an icecube of a human being at the best of times, and I am lucky enough to live in the north where there is heating, I will say that it still isn’t adequate. I explained it like this to my parents, who can’t understand what I’m complaining about, since the temperature is nowhere close to how cold it gets on the prairies in Canada: when it starts getting cold in the fall, just don’t turn on your heat. Not only that, but open every window in the house an inch or two. Leave it this way all winter. Then call me and let me know how you’re doing.

    I actually asked my husband about insulation, and he explained (quite logically…by Chinese logic) that it would not only increase the cost of a house, but also that building out a wall to put insulation and drywall up would mean the living space of the apartments would be even smaller. That, and it is viewed as a fire hazard (which, given the shoddy electrical work I’ve seen in houses I’ve lived in, I believe). People here are more than happy to just pile on more clothes at home than spend money on something like this that they see as unnecessary (since they can just pile on more clothes instead).

    • Tom says:

      Excellent point about the reduced floor space. I think a lot could be gained through better windows (just to remove the actual draft), but at some point, insulation is going to be needed to make buildings actually efficient.
      My wife’s family lives in Northern Iowa, and it’s very hard to explain to my Chinese friends that -20 there isn’t as cold as 10 is here.

      • kjsandor says:

        I agree, but until attitudes of consumer and builders here start to change drastically and people demand it, it won’t happen – and even then, it still might prove too expensive. My husband has often told me that people here are willing to live in “an OK house” with “OK things” rather than spend the money on quality. They would much prefer to save the money for something else (their children??).
        But double-paned windows, or those that actually close all the way, could go a long way in improving the situation, that’s for sure! 🙂

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Don’t forget that most buildings don’t have ventilation systems and get very stale when closed up tight. To my way of thinking, closed up tight and warm is better. To my in-laws way of thinking, we need to open the windows wide first thing in the morning to get rid of the bad air. Still, when our new office building opened and did have quite a good ventilation system, the open windows were seen as preferable.

      By the way, Tom, the technology already exists!

      • Tom says:

        I was actually just railing against open windows yesterday in one of my English classes, as I do every year. The argument being that stale air leads to illness, but they never weigh that against the weakening of the immune system caused by being cold all day.

        Yes, the technology exists, perhaps I should have added “at a price that is attractive to Chinese consumers”.

      • kjsandor says:

        You’re very right – I wrote about my conversation with my husband about why Chinese people like the windows open in winter on my blog. While tongue-in-cheek and half sarcastic, I am not making up his line of reasoning at all. Check it out!!

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I ought to put this in my own words, but I find it a very succinct statement of what I want to say. From Pierre Bourdieu: “the anthropologist who does not know himself, who does not have an adequate knowledge of his own primary experience of the world, puts the primitive at a distance because he does not recognize the primitive, pre-logical thought within himself” (2003, p. 286). So, if we substitute “foreign expert” for “anthropologist”, “Chinese” for “primitive”, and “traditional” for “pre-logical”, I think we have the beginnings of a self-analysis mostly missing in our comments.

        I recall very distinctly the experience of returning to Canada after living in China for about two years. Having spent two years blasting away at all that is wrong with “Chinese logic,” I returned home to find myself constantly taken aback at the dominance of illogical thought and behaviour, often justified through a pseudo-scientific logic. I found myself standing waiting for the lights of a crosswalk to change at 2am when no cars were in sight. Why? Because the power of habit and deeply embodied social norms and not, as I might have reasoned at the moment, because if one person does it there will be chaos! Besides that, I’m sure there are statistics out there that show how dangerous walking against the light is.

        My purpose is not to defend opening windows and wasting heat/energy. But, against Tom’s comment against the the practice of “clearing the air,” surely there is something to be said for letting in fresh air. Indeed, advanced air conditioning system partly work on the principle of bringing in fresh air. In the face of poor ventilation, not to mention mouldy-mopped concrete slab classrooms, I’d say opening the windows can be useful.

      • Tom says:

        I agree with the idea that it is not always wrong to open a window, it makes sense if you occupy a room for a whole day without ever opening the door.

        However, the practice does go beyond that. For instance, I saw a woman driving a brand new car with all of the windows down this morning. She had gloves on and a scarf covering part of her face. And while we might chuckle about the absurdity of waiting to cross the street in the middle of the night, I wonder if this lady considered that maybe the cars heater would provide a bit of fresh air too (granted this is one person).

        I would be willing to bet, that the majority of those who stand at lights at 2am, would consider darting across the road if it was the middle of winter.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Might cross, yes, and then would feel either guilt at doing so, or joy at having gotten away with something.

  2. Mark walker says:

    Really good article. It makes me aware of a problem I hadn’t focused on.

  3. Jin Zhao says:

    This issue may be more serious in the South than the North. In the South, like my hometown Kunming, Yunnan, people used to get by in the winter because it wasn’t that long and as severe as the North, so buildings were not designed for heating or insolation. But now, people don’t want to just get by but comfort (I don’t blame them either), but it’s difficult to provide heating while the old infrastructure doesn’t support it.

    • Tom says:

      I completely agree, the winters in rural Guangxi were some of the most miserable. The unheated classrooms were miserable, and everyone wore as much as we could squeeze into. In Nanjing, my co-workers called to complain that it was too cold after just one day of bundling up. The attitudes have changed rather quickly.

  4. BB says:

    I’ve lived in both Beijing and Shanghai and can honestly say that the winters in Shanghai feel colder than those in Beijing. While the humidity in the Shanghai plays a part I am convinced that the lack of proper insulation there also greatly contributes to the “colder” winters. On top of that, having to use ACs for heating just adds insult to injury.

    In Beijing, I hardly ever turned on the heating because the insulation was quite good (at least in that building) and I made due with a sweater or blanket. In Shanghai I wore warm clothes, tucked under a blanket and turned on an electrical radiator (sometimes in addition to the AC)!

  5. Yaxue C. says:

    One of my sisters lives in Wuhan (武汉). One year I spent the Chinese New Year with her family and, boy, was it a freezing mistake! I shivered all day during the day, and at night, I dreaded to go to bed because it was like climbing into an ice box–chilled to the bone. I grew up in the north, but had never experienced THAT kind of cold.

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