Greenhouse Pollution Drops in China, India Thanks to Low-Tech Fixes

Mark Anderson
for National Geographic News
July 19, 2006
Dramatically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the developing world
could be as simple as installing new boilers and fluorescent lights,
according to a new study by the United Nations and the World Bank.

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Bank recently released their final report on a pilot energy-efficiency project in the developing world's three leading economies: Brazil, China, and India.

The report reveals that energy use in these countries can be slashed by 25 percent using simple, low-tech innovations.

This reduction could translate to a substantial cut in both greenhouse-gas emissions and air pollution, because coal-fired power plants provide much of the electricity in these countries, the report stated.

The Three Country Energy Efficiency Project, conducted from December 2002 until May 2006, collaborated with Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian energy consulting firms to help owners of local mills, factories, and office parks to cut their power use by as much as a third.

The project tapped the World Bank to help these regional firms—called Energy Service Companies, or ESCOs—buy equipment such as energy-efficient air conditioning units and steam boilers.

These quick fixes have resulted in prompt payoffs in terms of energy reduction, according to Mark Radka, head of UNEP's Energy Branch.

"There are very good potential investments in energy efficiency—replacing boilers, upgrading lighting systems," he said.

"Just like if you bought a compact fluorescent bulb. You shell out a little more money than you might for an incandescent bulb, but it pays for itself relatively quickly."

India Energy Savings

At the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi, India, for instance, the project helped New Delhi company DSCL Energy Services install new lighting and air conditioning that cut the hospital's energy bill by 25 percent.

DSCL also worked with three Indian companies to upgrade boilers and pumping systems, netting energy savings of 15 to 38 percent.

Every energy-efficiency project that DSCL worked on decreased its client's energy bill enough to pay for itself within two years, says company CEO G.C. Datta Roy.

The Three Country Energy Efficiency Project, he said, was instrumental in making local banks recognize the soundness of such investments.

The project, Datta Roy noted via email, "enable[d] us to work in a collaborative model [with banks] rather than an adversarial way, as was happening earlier."

"Starved for Money"

DSCL is just one of many ESCOs the project worked with that simply needed some initial capital to prime the financial pump.

"That's why this project was critical, because the ESCOs in these countries were often very technically capable—staffed with good engineers and such. But they were, in a sense, starved for money," UNEP's Radka said.

"Banks are often quite cautious to enter a new area," he added.

"No one really wants to be the first. … So often it's a matter of getting the first couple [of loans] going."

Each country involved in the project called for a different approach, said World Bank consultant Jeremy Levin, who worked on the project.

"In China, where the banking sector is undergoing reform and restructuring, there was a very high risk-aversion from the banks," he said.

Because Chinese commercial banks were wary of making any investments that weren't practically guaranteed, the World Bank effectively co-signed the loans from Chinese banks to Chinese ESCOs for up to 90 percent of the loan amounts, Levin explained.

In the end, the World Bank guaranteed U.S. $36.4 million in loans over 52 projects, which resulted in energy savings that cut 102,700 tons (93,100 metric tons) of Chinese carbon dioxide emissions per year.

This reduction is approximately equivalent to 24,000 SUV owners switching to hybrid cars.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature on China's growing environmental problems.)

Developing Countries and the Future

Jamais Cascio is the founder of the environmental and global-development blogs and He says he hopes that ESCOs can take the quest for improved energy efficiency to the vast residential markets of the three countries.

"[The ESCOs] could achieve more things by focusing on homes … [and] getting individual domestic changes, such as improved lighting and improved cooking tools," he said.

He added that future projects could use a kind of development called leapfrogging, in which a region's lack of infrastructure may actually work to its benefit.

"Because you don't have the existing base of legacy equipment [such as an electric grid] that you have to slowly grind through a replacement, you can make wholesale changes that can have pretty dramatic results," he said.

Cascio cites the example of a grassroots solar-power movement emerging from the Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India.

"There's the Barefoot Solar Engineer movement, which is basically training illiterate women in Indian villages to be solar-power engineers, to be able to install and repair solar-power systems to provide power to communities that are off the grid," Cascio said.

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