Winter smog chokes huge swathes of China.

Source: STR/AFP/Getty Images

One Word, China: Insulation

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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How hard will it be for China to fulfill its end of the climate deal signed with the United States this week? The extraordinary means that the Chinese government used to reduce Beijing’s air pollution in advance of and during the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit offer some sobering hints. Among other measures, city residents were given a six-day vacation, factories were shut down, traffic restrictions were imposed, even the small coal heaters that poor villagers outside of the city use to heat their beds were banned temporarily. Yet despite these extraordinary efforts targeted at just one city, pollution remained high enough that the Chinese government took the added step of censoring the U.S. embassy’s unflattering air quality data for Beijing.

That reality should worry anyone concerned about climate change (and accurate data reporting from China). But it’s not very surprising. Anti-pollution measures that require austerity on the part of Chinese consumers, businesses, and local governments will always face resistance. Fortunately, there are other ways for China to slow the rise in its carbon emissions, at least some of which require far less sacrifice from powerful and not-so-powerful interests.

A good place to start? Insulation.

Yes, pink fiberglass is an underutilized resource in China's climate fight. During the 2000s, nearly half of the world’s new buildings were erected in China, according to a National Resources Defense Council study. Yet only five percent of them met China’s energy efficiency standards (which are already rather meager compared to, say, northern Europe). That’s a big problem: In 2009, according to the same research, buildings accounted for 28 percent of total Chinese energy use.

What do the 95 percent of Chinese buildings that are energy inefficient look like? Much like the apartments I rented in Shanghai over the last decade: uninsulated concrete boxes with single-pane windows and blustery drafts (that no amount of weather-proofing ever seemed to plug completely). When temperatures dipped (sometimes below freezing), the walls went ice-cold and stayed that way until spring, even if I ran my space heaters and heat-blowing air conditioner non-stop, for days at a time (as I sometimes did).

Indoor misery has outdoor consequences: Dangerous air pollution spikes in the winter months, due in large part to China’s disproportionate reliance on coal to provide electricity and heat to its citizens. It’s not just Shanghai either. Roughly half of China’s population lives in northern regions where temperatures fall below 50 degrees for at least 90 days per year, and winter smog can choke thousands of square kilometers for days and weeks at a time.

Could insulation solve this problem? According to a peer-reviewed study from 2010, China could reduce its CO2 emissions by 510 million tons annually -- or 8.4 percent of its 2006 levels -- if it required fiberglass insulation use in areas with “extreme climates.” Other studies have predicted similar energy savings (and consequent carbon reductions) if additional building energy conservation measures were adopted, or more often than not, fully enforced. Unlike the desperate measures adopted before the APEC summit, too, ensuring that buildings are insulated properly requires only a one-time investment of time and money, not an ongoing fight against reluctant officials or factory owners. 

These facts are hardly unknown to senior levels of the Chinese government, or the foreign environmental community (former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson was in China this week pushing better building codes). But enforcement of existing codes is notoriously lax, due largely to the intertwined financial interests of local governments (which continue to derive significant revenues from land sales) and cost-shaving developers.

Still, that’s far from fatal. The central government could help by offering more generous subsidies for energy-saving retrofits of buildings -- rather than placing most of the burden on local governments, as is the case under the current system. It won’t be cheap (and some of that money will inevitably end up in corrupt pockets). But over the long-term, such measures are going to be less disruptive to the Chinese economy, and better for the planet, than temporary traffic restrictions, factory closures, and freezing cold apartments.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net