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Global Ideas

Asia's booming economies fuel soaring energy demand

According to the International Energy Agency, energy consumption is set to double by 2050. Demand is growing all over the world and especially in energy-ravenous India and China.

Electricity pylons in Shanghai

China's electricity needs are vast

In Asia, the growing thirst for energy is quenched largely with fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal.

China is the world's biggest polluter, relying for over 70 percent of its electricity needs on coal-fired power plants, which emit huge amounts of CO2 emissions.

And according to Hanns Guenther Hilpert, an Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), its use of coal will continue to increase - so the government's stated goal of significantly reducing its carbon emissions by 2050 looks far from feasible.

India, China fueling demand

Rush hour in Seuol

Asia's cities are booming

Other Asian countries are seeing a similar surge in energy needs. A recent government report in India revealed that the country will have to quintuple its energy production capacities in the next few years. Like China, India relies heavily on coal and has some of the largest reserves of coal in the world.

Even though coal-powered plants are playing less of a role in other countries around the world, the fossil fuel industry continues to boom primarily because of India and China, explains Sven Teske, director of Greenpeace's international department for renewable energy .

Moreover, the seemingly unstoppable growth in Asia's emerging economies tends to come hand-in-hand with certain challenges.

"They're currently entering the most energy-intensive phase in the construction of their own infrastructures and have to look for viable ways of covering their needs," points out Hanns Guenther Hilpert from the SWP.

This is one of the reasons why China and India are pushing for new nuclear power plants. China currently has about a dozen nuclear plants installed with a capacity of 10 gigawatts (gW). Another 25 nuclear facilities are being built and the country plans a further 50.

But Beijing has temporarily halted new licenses in the wake of the nuclear crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant. All operating nuclear reactors are to undergo renewed security checks.

Last year, India's atomic energy authority also announced the construction of new nuclear plants as well as hundreds of new coal-powered plants that the country needs to use up its resources. The country already has 20 nuclear reactors.

The Japan crisis has, in particular, renewed focus on controversial Indian plans to build the world's largest nuclear facility in Jaitapur, located on the Arabian Sea about 300 kilometers (186 milies) south of Mumbai. Local farmers have been protesting for months against the government's plans to buy their land for the planned nuclear facility. Now, the Japan disaster has heightened opposition to the plant.

Opportunities for renewable energies

A hut in rural China with a solar panel on the roof

Many remote Chinese villages are off-grid

But clean energy also has a future in Asia. "They should follow this path right from the outset," says Sven Teske. "It would cost a lot to overhaul infrastructure at a later date. They could simply leapfrog the middle phase the western countries went through."

The Greenpeace expert would like to see a widescale adoption of small-scale projects such as solar and wind power plants or hybrid solar wind systems. These can be easily built as the example of Indonesia goes to show.

Home to 14,000 islands, half the population has no access to electricity. Similarly, some 70,000 villages in India are off-grid. Energy needs to be generated where it's needed, which, moreover, also leads to job creation.

Different solutions for different contries

The technology employed depends on local conditions.

Conditions in China and India are ideal for wind energy, while geothermal energy appears to have the most potential in the Philippines. In mountainous regions such as southern Taiwan, meanwhile, hydropower is a promising alternative.

But experts warn against an over-zealous approach to developing these fledgling industries. Ambitious hydropower plans in particular have proved controversial: the world's largest such project is the Three Gorges Dam in China, a hydroelectric dam that spans the Yangtze River. Its construction resulted in the relocation of hundreds of thousands of local residents, while activists are concerned about the environmental damage the project will cause to local flora and fauna.

China is better than its reputation

A house in Shanghai

China has to balance its economic agenda with environmental priorities

In fact, China's population of 1.4 billion are not neccessarily the chronic polluters they're often made out to be, argues Sven Teske. International comparisons show that energy consumption is average - although he admits the only reason that it is not higher is that vast swathes of the popualtion are still not benfiting from China's economic growth. Efforts to establish a clean energy industry are crucial - before it's too late, he insists.

"China's thirst for energy is insatiable and the country will quench it with whatever is available," he cautions.

But Hans Guenther Hilpert from the SWP is optimistic. "The country's politcial leadership has recognized the need for environmental protection," he says, although he also concedes that actually implementing this is hard, given the old guard's push for growth and maximum profits.

But China has shown that it is willing to go green, with the latest five-year plans including a focus on renewable energies, increased energy efficiency and caps on energy consumption.

Author: Po Keung Cheung (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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