MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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NORRIS: Time now for another installment in our year-long series Climate Connections with National Geographic.
Today and all this week, we're focusing on China. Last year, China overtook the U.S. to become the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide. And China, it's fair to say, is worried about that. The government has set ambitious goals for reducing emissions and increasing energy efficiency by 2010 — goals that could be very hard to meet. I traveled to China earlier this spring with producer Andrea Hsu to find out how China is trying to reach those goals.
Our search led us to one of the greenest buildings in China and one of the brains behind that building: a man name Yang Guoxiong.
Mr. YANG GUOXIONG (Deputy Director, China Technology Promotion Center): (Speaking in foreign language)
NORRIS: Yang is with China's Ministry of Science and Technology. The ministry owns this nine-story, modern-looking office building. It was built in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit also based in the U.S.
As green buildings go, this is the gold standard, literally. In 2005, it became the first building in China to be LEED-certified at the gold level. LEED stands for leadership in energy and environmental design; that's an internationally recognized standard for excellence. Yang gave us a tour of the building to point out some of the features that helped earn that distinction.
Mr. YANG: (Speaking in foreign language)
NORRIS: Double-paned, argon-filled windows cut down on heating and air-conditioning costs by limiting the transfer of heat through glass. Lights turn on automatically when it's too dark to read, and elevators sense the passenger load and adjust energy use accordingly.
Mr. YANG: (Through translator) Carrying one person takes one amount of energy; carrying 13 people takes another.
NORRIS: We finished our tour on the rooftop. It's a serene spot where the solar panels and the rainwater collection tanks are enhanced by seating areas and grass, trees and shrubs, all grown on a shallow bed of volcanic ash that's lighter and less water-dependent than traditional soil.
Mr. YANG: (Through translator) When this building went up, the neighborhood lost green space, so we're returning that bit of green space with this roof garden. Moreover, the garden helps insulate the building.
NORRIS: You can tell Yang is fond of this garden, but his real pride stems from the fact that the entire structure costs less than the average government building in Beijing. The reason: More than 90 percent of the technology used was made in China. Importing hundreds of windows from overseas, for instance, would undercut energy savings and add additional costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
China's goal is to make all new buildings 50 percent more efficient by 2010. However, China's state media recently reported that only half are meeting those standards. From the rooftop, the challenge and the stakes are in plain view. Construction cranes reach skyward in every direction; each will soon sprout a new skyscraper.
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NORRIS: Across town, down on street level, this time looking up at some of those cranes, I spoke with Alex Wang. He's director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China Environmental Law Project.
Mr. ALEX WANG (Director, China Environmental Law Project, Natural Resources Defense Council): This is what they're calling the central business district.
NORRIS: We're talking primarily 30, 40, 50-story buildings here.
Mr. WANG: Yeah, absolutely. This large apartment complex has over a thousand units…
NORRIS: We should say…
Mr. WANG: …still under construction.
NORRIS: In front of that large apartment complex is a great big, giant hole in the ground. I assume that's another building.
Mr. WANG: Right, that's another building that will come up at some point.
NORRIS: It feels like we could be in Manhattan with the hustle bustle of people in cars, as well as buildings that are grand in both size and style. Case in point: the future headquarters for China Central Television, a stunner of a structure designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas.
How would you describe that? It's sort of - it's not really a tower, it's sort of twin towers with a, sort of, link on top?
Mr. WANG: I heard someone describe it as two drunk brothers leaning against each other.
NORRIS: Ah, right.
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NORRIS: Arm and arm at the top…
Mr. WANG: Yeah, that'd be it.
NORRIS: …I guess, yeah.
All this steel, concrete and glass underscores China's enormous appetite for energy. NRDC estimates that close to half of China's total energy use comes from buildings — the energy it takes to manufacture and transport the materials, the construction, and then heating and cooling all those structures.
Again, Alex Wang.
Mr. WANG: Today, what they've been doing largely is — essentially, they've been building new coal-fired power plants to meet that demand. Right now, the rate of construction is about two every single week.
NORRIS: Wait, that bears repeating. Two coal-fired power plants every week?
Mr. WANG: Right. So, the government's clearly recognized that that is not a sustainable model because that creates a whole host of issues both economic and environmental.
NORRIS: Has China already seen a sort of manifestation of climate change - not just sort of the idea that this might happen down the road, but are you already starting to see obvious effects?
Mr. WANG: Yeah. I mean, they have - China has been very straightforward about the impact that climate change will have on the country. They haven't been denying that this is a real phenomenon. And last summer, they put out a report, an official government report, that set forth the, you know, the impact that they're starting to see and that they expected to see in terms of greater incidence of extreme weather events, potential damage on crops, effect on precipitation, effects on the glaciers up in the Tibetan plateau that supplies a lot of the major rivers of the world. They predict potential and greater incidence of disease.
NORRIS: Are they taking — in your mind, do you think that they're taking the right steps to combat that?
Mr. WANG: Oh, in that same report, they set forth a whole series of very pragmatic approaches that included both adaptation, you know, what if we can't avoid these impacts, what do we do? But they also have a lot of measures to try to mitigate impacts of climate change.
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NORRIS: When you walk around Beijing and pass all these construction cranes, listen to all this traffic, what goes through your mind?
Mr. WANG: Well, I think there's no doubt that what you see in China right now is - has probably never happened anywhere in the world ever before in history. The challenges that they're facing on the environment are extremely serious, but it's also tied to the fact that this is still very much a developing country. And so, they are trying to lift the largest population in the world out of poverty, to help improve their daily lives. So there's a real challenging balancing act that the country is trying to strike right now.
You know, one thing to remember is that countries like the U.S. and, you know, a lot of European countries and Japan, all also went through some very serious periods of environmental degradation. I would say that China's challenges are greater than what we've seen in those other countries because we're talking about a much bigger country with much faster growth.
However, in the recent years, they've really started to talk about this issue a lot. People's awareness of this is growing a lot. So, I think that's — for anyone who works in this area, you have to be optimistic. But there's no doubt that the road ahead is still quite challenging.
NORRIS: That's Alex Wang with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
As we leave the central business district, it's clear to me that this rapidly modernizing country has learned much about conservation, and people take the challenge very seriously. The showcase green office building we saw is evidence of that. But if China hopes to meet its efficiency goals, that showcase must become more of a standard.
And you can learn about other efforts in China to reduce global warming at our Web site. You'll find an interview with the director of one of the international groups working on climate change. That's at npr.org.