Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Energy woes plague Shanghai

DIMMING LIGHT BULBS Officials in energy-hungry Shanghai are doing everything they can to curb power consumption and reduce the plague of brownouts


With the hottest days of summer fast approaching, Shanghai is making preparations to seed clouds over the city in order to make it rain, in the hope that a couple of degrees of reduced temperatures will help ward off brownouts, or worse, here in China's commercial capital.

Even now, city inspection teams are visiting factories, identifying the least efficient energy consumers, possibly to be closed down for a time, and thermostats are being raised in public offices. City officials say they are even contemplating shutting down the huge flashing advertising signs that made the Bund, or downtown river front in Shanghai, China's largest city, the neon equivalent of Times Square.

With China projecting a 20-million-kilowatt shortfall in electricity supplies this year, actions like these are anything but isolated. With severe power shortages predicted for the country's southern and eastern regions, Guangzhou, China's third largest city, an industrial powerhouse, has had rationing since January, six months earlier than the emergency measures put into effect last year.

Discussions about China these days are often dominated by economic terms like "overheating," and "hard versus soft landings."

What is described as being at issue, typically, is whether the country's leaders can continue to successfully manage this huge and increasingly complex economy at growth rates that are among the world's fastest.

The rush to find short-term, sometimes even fanciful-sounding, palliatives for the country's immense power crunch, however, reflects creeping doubts of a more profound order. These concerns have recently been expressed even at the level of China's normally serene and self-confident-sounding senior officials.

The worry, put bluntly, is that the world simply may not have enough energy and other resources for China to continue developing along present lines, especially at its present rate. Furthermore, sharply increased environmental damage might make the country unlivable, even if such growth could be sustained.

China's predicament is reflected in a simple statistic: This country is already the world's second-largest consumer of energy, and yet on a per capita basis, the Chinese consume scarcely 10 percent of the energy used by Americans.

In material terms, the contemporary Chinese dream is not so different from the traditional American dream, of spacious homes full of power-consuming appliances and a car or two in the driveway, and therein lies the source of concern for the country's leaders -- and indeed for the world. As urbanization gathers pace here, there is a growing sense that such dreams will collide with intractable limits.

"If we use the patterns of today, China cannot double its economy," said Chen Jinhai, director of the Shanghai provincial government's Energy Commission and Environmental Protection Department. "We would need the energy of Mars or other planets. Our consumption may still be less than the U.S. or Japan, but the key for our future will have to be greater efficiency."

Chen is far from a lone voice speaking about the severe environmental and resource limitations that will challenge this country's seemingly irresistible rise of late. Indeed, his perspective echoes that of senior policy makers in Beijing.

"If we continue with the massive consumption of resources, shortages will only get worse, it will become very hard to maintain stable, high-speed growth, and the economy risks declining greatly," wrote Ma Kai, director of the State Development and Reform Commission, in a sobering recent article in People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper. "Now we are at a key point in the industrialization and urbanization process. If we don't transform our economic model, we could lose the ability to grow."

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