Is biomass key to China's energy path?

By Jerry W. Kram
China has the largest population and one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth, yet the country's growth has put a huge strain on world energy supplies and China's environment. These challenges and possibilities that China faces as it plots its energy future were outlined in an article recently published in the journal Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment.

High energy consumption and poor energy efficiency exacerbate China's pollution problem, according to the paper. In 2003, two-thirds of Chinese cities didn't meet air quality standards. China has the highest sulfur dioxide emissions in the world and ranks second in carbon dioxide emissions. Chinese industry lags behind the rest of the world in energy efficiency. Eight energy-intensive industries representing nearly three-fourths of China's industrial energy consumption use 47 percent more energy per unit of production than the same industries in developed nations.

Through the use of biomass as an energy source, China could reduce air pollution and improve energy efficiency, according to the paper's authors Hai Ren, Zhi'an Li, Qinfeng Guo and Quan Wang. Biomass energy has only 10 percent of the polluting emissions of coal and could reduce pollution by 40 percent to 60 percent. The paper said the energy transformation efficiency-the effectiveness through which one type of energy is transformed into another-could be improved by 35 percent to 40 percent if advanced biomass combustion techniques were used.

Although China is home to more than 1 billion people, it's still a country rich in biomass resources. A survey cited in the Ambio paper estimates that China's biomass resources could provide three times as much energy as the country currently consumes. Many of China's native species produce seeds rich in vegetable oils, some with oil contents above 60 percent.

China is party to treaties and has passed laws that could encourage the adoption of biomass energy in the coming years. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 2005 and will require China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future. The Chinese Renewable Energy Law was ratified by the National People's Congress in 2007. The law encourages the use of renewable energy resources. Biomass energy is considered a critical alternative in China's energy consumption and new rural construction campaign that began in 2007.

The paper, which wasn't peer-reviewed, can be found at Ambio is published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science.