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UCL Energy Institute Blog


Blogs by staff & students of the UCL Energy Institute


Two months since COP21, where are we now?

RobertLowe21 January 2016


In December 2015 immediately following the publication of the COP21 Paris Agreement I wrote a short note on the competing reasons for pessimism and optimism.  What follows expands on that theme. I am going to focus on three things: COP21, the confirmation that 2015 has been the warmest year on the instrumental record, and continued reports that coal consumption in China may have peaked. (more…)

Among China’s top three energy sources, two are now renewable

BoranLi12 December 2014

While browsing online for information about electricity generation from renewable sources, I found a rather surprising “olds” reported by CleanTechnica back in January 2013, that China’s electricity produced from wind has already surpass the amount from nuclear, hence became the third largest source of electricity. This implies a seemingly impressive achievement: among top three energy sources in China, two of them are renewable, hydro and wind power. This is really remarkable, even compared with most developed economies in the world. Based on data provided by IEA, advanced economies including the US, the UK and Germany have their electricity mainly from coal, gas and nuclear. None of these sources is renewable!

boran liShould we applaud for this achievement of China, one of the biggest polluters in the world? Ehhh, probably we need to look deeper into this firstly.

One reason behind why wind could make its way into the top three is that the top two sources produce more than 93% electricity in China; more specifically, around 76% from coal and 17% from hydro (around 5% for wind in 2013). With this two big players in electricity generation, it is not that hard for other new growing technologies to join the team of top three, while no significant impact upon carbon emission could be realised during this process. Even though, the 17% figure for hydro itself also looks very impressive. But recently, there are many debate in China about if it is worthy to decarbonise by building dams, considering their significant by-product of damaging local ecosystems. The biggest dam in the world, Three Gorges Dam, was once a national treasure of the Chinese public and an important showcase of the powerful Chinese government, but if you search on the internet now, all you get are its damages to local weather, endangered species and reservoir area geological structure. Due to lack of rigorous planning and impact assessment before constructions of many government hydro-power projects, and countless resulted side effects, it is a growing consensus in China that all the dames will all be pulled down, sooner or later.

Similar problems occurred to wind energy development as well. For many local governments, one of the main objectives of developing wind energy is vanity of local officers. This leads to the issue that local government lacks incentives and therefore expertise to conduct detailed planning before building up wind power plants. In many cases, poor integration planning and inadequately developed electricity storage technologies raised the issue of electricity waste. In 2013 the amount of wasted electricity was estimated to be equivalent to the whole year usage of Beijing, this means only 2.5% of actual consumed electricity in China came from wind last year. Compared with the 5% production figure, half of them was thrown back into the air. Moreover, in some extreme cases, government officers only realised the wind power plant was not connected to the grid after the construction was finished.

We should not deny the great achievement that wind produced electricity in China soared 1580% from 5710GWh in 2007 to 95978GWh in 2012, which cannot be done without a strong centralised government. In less developed market economies like China, private businesses may take longer to respond to changes of market signals and advances of technologies, it is therefore government’s responsibility to plan and build the future. But with a strong Soviet style planning tradition, Chinese government still need time to learn how to give the freedom back to the market. Nowadays, even with generous subsidies provided by the central government, many green-tech businesses are complaining that they are physically crowded out by large scale wind and solar power plants invested by local governments. This conflict of crowding-out is set to be more intense in China than in well-developed democratic countries, considering China’s capitalist economic based and the single party bureaucratic (deliberately avoid using a strong word) upper structure. Given all the negative impacts from state initiated projects, it might be high time for government to learn when and where to take its muddy hands off, and let the market go.

“Half the work, twice the effect” – from a Chinese proverb to the cost-effective responses to the climate crisis

AimeeWalker6 March 2014

Blog by Wenjia Cai, UCL Lancet Commission

Right now I am sitting in my office in Beijing, where the air quality has been labeled by “hazardous” for almost a week. I am suffering from my sore throat, but I have nowhere to escape.

I believe this is the kind of frustration faced by many people, when they know climate change is threatening their health. The negative health impacts are happening, and are very likely to cost us a fortune.

Some simple but serious facts [1]-[3] are shown below. Of the world’s total population,

Wei 1

These are the most vulnerable people in the world. They are never the biggest contributors to the climate change crisis, but they are the ones being affected the most. Their health has been greatly threatened by droughts, floods, hunger, vector-borne diseases, home damages and health services interrupts.

Take hurricanes and storms for example. Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast of the United States, causing widespread damage and around 100 people died. However, in the developing world, such storms take a much greater toll. In 2007 and 2008, two very severe storms – Sidr and Nargis – caused the deaths of more than 10,000 and around 138,000 people in Bangladesh and Myanmar, respectively. In fact, statistics shows that only 5% of tropical cyclones occur in the north Indian Ocean, but they account for 95% of such casualties worldwide[4].

To respond to the climate crisis, greenhouse gas mitigation certainly aims for the root of the problem; yet some simple and low-cost adaptation measures can have instant effects.

Peter J. Webster, a professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, USA, advocates for the establishment of network between the forecasters of global weather and climate in the developed world, and research, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the less-developed world[4]. He estimated that such a network could produce 10-15-day forecasts for south and east Asia for a wide range of hydrometeorological hazards (including slow-rise monsoon floods, droughts and tropical cyclones), which will cost as little as $2~3 million a year, but save billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

On the basis of a World Bank report[5], one analysis concluded that about $ 40 was saved for every dollar invested in the regional forecasting and warning system. 

Fortunately, as commented by Webster, Bangladesh already benefited from such network. In 2007 and 2008, Bangladesh experienced three major floods. Each was forecast successfully ten days in advance and mitigation steps were taken.

This is one successful story of how we can quickly adapt to the coming climate crisis in a cost-effective way. The following table is excerpted from the major-task list of the “National Strategy of Climate Change Adaption” in China[6], published in November 2013, which may also provide us some hints on the other cost-effective options.


Major tasks to protect human health under climate change context in China
Improve the health and epidemic prevention system construction –strengthen disease prevention and control system–amend the indoor and working environmental standards–monitor drinking water hygiene conditions
Carry out monitoring and evaluation, as well as public information services –evaluate climate change impacts on the health of vulnerable people–establish the health-related weather monitoring and early warning networks, and public information service system
Strengthen the emergency system construction –develop and improve the health emergency plans for heat stroke, snow and ice, haze and other extreme weather and climate events


We are standing in the historic moment of addressing the climate crisis. Any delayed action may result in irreversible change and unaffordable costs. To make the right strategy, the traditional cost-effective analysis (CBA) can shed some light and help us choose within the large pool of adaptation and mitigation options. Obviously our choices will lean towards those options which don’t need high investment and will eventually pay for itself. In fact, there are many such options which can have the “twice the effect” with “half the work”. Our report will try to identify them. It’s also expected that, after considering the monetized health benefits, those options will become much more cost-effective, which can strengthen the will and catalyze the actions from politicians and investors.

Wenjia Cai is an assistant professor of Global Change Economics in Center for Earth System Sciences, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China. E-mail: wcai@tsinghua.edu.cn. The blog content only shows the views from the author, and cannot represent the opinions of any organizations or working groups.

[1] World Bank, 2013. World Development Indicators 2013. http://data.worldbank.org/region/WLD (accessed Feb 25th, 2014)
[2] Da Silva J, 2013.. World Food Day 2013: Towards Sustainable Food Systems. http://www.fao.org//about/who-we-are/director-gen/faodg-opinionarticles/detail/en/c/203152/ (accessed Feb 25th, 2014)
[3] World Health Organization, 2013. 10 Facts on Climate Change and Health. http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/climate_change/facts/en/index5.html (accessed Feb 25th, 2014)
[4] Webster P, 2013. Improve weather forecasts for the developing world. Nature, 493: 17-19.
[5] Teisberg TJ, Weiher RF, 2009. Background Paper on the Benefits and Costs of Early Warning Systems for Major Natural Hazards. https://www.gfdrr.org/sites/gfdrr.org/files/New%20Folder/Teisberg_EWS.pdf (accessed Feb 25th, 2014)
[6] National Development and Reform Commission, 2013. China’s National Strategy of Climate Change Adaption. http://qhs.ndrc.gov.cn/gzdt/W020131213626583538862.pdf (accessed Feb 25th, 2014)