Chinese officials indicate that China may turn away from corn-based ethanol and coal-to-liquids synthetic fuels over concerns about the sustainability of these alternative fuels
China may halt the production of grain-based ethanol and coal-to-liquids synthetic fuels, a Chinese official told a seminar on China's fuel ethanol development held in Beijing last weekend.
The official, a deputy director with China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the nation's top economic planning agency, told seminar attendees that the country no longer approve any ethanol projects designed to produce fuel from edible feedstocks, including corn.
Xu Dingming, vice director of the Office of the National Energy Leading Group, echoed these comments saying, "Food-based ethanol fuel will not be the direction for China." The Office of the National Energy Leading Group is responsible for energy planning and is an office of the NDRC.
China may also "put an end to projects which are designed to produce petroleum by liquefying coal," the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the NDRC official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The State Council, China's cabinet, also recently approved, at least in principle, a 'long-term renewable energy development plan,' a Forbes.com article reports. The development plan calls for restrictions on developing the corn-based ethanol and coal-to-liquids fuels due to their environmental impact, the paper said.
It was not immediately clear when the plan would be formally approved.
China's rapidly increasing oil demand and lack of domestic oil resources has led the country to turn to alternative fuels, including corn ethanol and coal-to-liquids synthetic fuels. The Chinese government said earlier it would invest more in developing alternative energy resources including biomass fuel and liquefied coal to substitute petroleum during the 11th Five-Year Program (2006-2010) period, amid concerns over the country's growing dependence on petroleum, Xinhua reports.
This apparent change of course, motivated by concerns about the environmental sustainability of these alternative fuels, may indicate a shift in thinking for the industrializing nation.
"The rapid development of grain-based ethanol biofuels has resulted in commodity price pressures in non-developed nations," the development report said.
China's grain stores should be focused on feeding its 1.3 billion people and crop lands should be reserved for food production, not energy production, the report said.
The renewable energy plan would restrict China's ethanol industry to producing fuel from non-grain sources, such as grasses, corn stalks or other plant by-products.
The development plan also calls for China to restrict its fledgling coal-to-liquids industry due to the high capital investment needs and its high demand for water and energy during the production process.
It seems that concerns about water and food shortages may be beginning to trump concerns about energy supplies as China's massive population and rapid economic growth strain available resources.
China produced 1.54 million tons of ethanol in 2006, of which 850,000 tons were made from corn, Forbes reports. Ethanol production, which currently occurs at four large ethanol plants, consumed about two percent of Chinas total corn production in 2006.
Coal liquidification, or coal-to-liquids technology, is a process which turns coal into liquid gasoline, diesel or other fuels (such as dimethyl ether). Coal-to-liquids fuel production produces large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions as well as sulphur dioxide, lead and mercury pollution. It also consumes large amounts of water to produce steam used in the liquedification process.
If China is indeed moving away from corn-based ethanol and coal-to-liquids fuels, they may be wiser than us here in the United States.
China's massive population and rapid economic development have put it between a rock and a hard place.
The Chinese government wants to continue to grow the economy, but the country has come face to face with significant resource constraints - including water, food, energy and raw materials - as well as a rapidly deteriorating environment.
These three pressures - economic development, resource constraints and environmental issues - are all significantly more intense in China than they are in the United States, leading the country to take seemingly more extreme and sometimes conflicting actions. Ultimately, I think that the realities of resource limitations and the dismal state of China's environment will mean that China will either find a path towards sustainable development, or the country will implode amidst water shortages, famine and riots over unlivable environmental conditions.
And as usual, whichever scenario eventually plays itself out, China's course forward will have significant impacts on the rest of the world.
This seemingly changing stance on corn-based ethanol and coal-to-liquids fuels is at least an encouraging indication that China is beginning to change its thinking and search for a sustainable way forward.
[A hat tip to Green Car Congress here and here and Climate Progress. Image source: MDIdea.com]