Green Olympics … the Butterfly in China

04/16/2008 | By Lew Tagliaferre

Runners recently began a long, serpentine trek of 85,000 miles to carry the Olympic torch from ancient Olympia in Greece to its terminal spot in Beijing, China, for the opening of the summer Olympics on Aug. 8, 2008. With the Olympic focus on Beijing, several energy items in the news got me thinking about energy policies in a slightly different way (or, possibly, several ways). It may seem like a leap of imagination, trying to connect the Olympic Games to your bottom line with energy policy, but maybe not. The 2008 summer games could help focus concern about international energy markets on growth of the Asian continent as never before. (You can watch it all unfold at

Beijing is promoting this as the first “Green Olympics” by touting the “harmonious relationship between man and nature, the advantages to environmental protection, and healthy living brought about by advances in technology.” The arrival of spring has kick-started forestation work around the Beijing National Stadium, commonly referred to as the “Bird's Nest.” The project began on April 4 and, when finished, will include 2,742 newly planted trees and 77,000 square meters of new grass. In fact, Beijing is aiming to transform itself into a place where “the air is fresh, the water is clear, and the surroundings are pretty” – at least during the Olympic Games. But, they say that air pollution there on a typical day normally is 5-times higher than the maximum for human lungs to absorb and remain functional, as stipulated by the World Health Organization. China depends upon coal to generate 80 percent of its electricity, and it has 500 new coal-fired plants on the books. So, plans are being made to shut down the massive city as much as possible during the games to assure that performance of the athletes will not be compromised.

Zhang Yimou, director of the opening ceremonies, promised to present a splendid show with some 10,000 performers who already are in rehearsal at several locations around the Beijing suburbs. No doubt the games will be spectacular and seen on billions of television monitors around the world. But, they symbolize big challenges from the other side of the world. China is rapidly emerging as the biggest trading partner and investor in the United States, and also our greatest competitor for world energy reserves (especially oil). For example, GM (General Motors) has announced plans to invest $1 billion per year with its Chinese partners to design and build small, energy-efficient cars with strange names for the skyrocketing transportation demand that’s expected in the coming decade.

A 4th annual international conference and expo on green buildings was convened on March 31, 2008, by the Ministry of Construction, when Chinese government officials, experts, and companies assembled to discuss how to reduce energy consumed by buildings. In the conference, design theory, technologies, and materials of green and intelligent building were the major topics. Also on the agenda were the past development, the current engineering practices, the operation, and the supervision of green building and residential real estate. In 2007, China saw a 3.27-percent year-on-year drop in energy consumption for each 10,000 yuan of Gross Domestic Production (GDP), according to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his government report to the First Session of the 11th National People’s Congress. The country plans to spend nearly $200 billion (U.S.) by 2020 to increase renewable energy use to 15 percent of total supply, as well as reduce the energy that its buildings consume by 65 percent.

Scan across the globe to the North American continent and zoom into the location of your buildings. As a user of energy resources, what do you see? Can you put all of the energy-policy options into some manageable perspective? The scale and complexity is difficult to imagine. For example, Congressional committee hearings recently put executives of the top oil companies on the spot to explain their record profits. One of them told stockholders they have no plans to increase oil supplies because rising prices will provide the needed growth in return on investment. Another pointed out that the United States consumes 20 railcar loads of coal every second to generate electricity. Stop for a second and try to imagine that.

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