China country roads

Rob in cycle heaven

by Rob Lewis

Contuinuing our ex-colleague’s account of cycling across the world with energy-saving in mind

After nearly three months in New Zealand we decided we wanted to go somewhere very different for our next cycling destination. China, with its ethnic and cultural diversity and its long history, seemed to fit the bill. I was also interested to see how it was developing in terms of the green agenda. I have heard so much about both sides of China’s development on this front. For example, it is now the leader in terms of solar technology production, whilst at the same time having the less encouraging accolade of being the world’s largest CO2 emitter.

We started our China trip in Hong Kong, where glass and steel structures tower impossibly high. As night falls they illuminate the sky with impressive light displays and crowds of tourists gather to watch and photograph this daily spectacle. Energy conservation is not top of the agenda here.

Hong Kong skyline by night

On the positive side, there is a decent public transport system (with some beautiful old trams still in operation) and a very low rate of car ownership. We tried to cycle the streets but it soon became apparent why we were the only ones doing so: spaghetti junctions, taxis and buses swallowed us up in a sea of chaos. Without cycle lanes we decided to explore the streets by foot, using the elevated walkways and outdoor escalators that have been built to enable residents to escape these crazy roads.

To avoid the busy highways out of the Hong Kong metropolis we took a ferry to a nearby city called Zhaoqing where we began ourChinacycling adventure; this was smaller than Hong Kong, but still has four million inhabitants – the same as the whole of New Zealand. Once off the main road out of Zhaoqing we found the minor roads good for cycling, with very little traffic. Drivers were also a lot more considerate than the ones we encountered in New Zealand, and traffic moves a lot slower – making other vehicles less of a danger.

One of the first things that struck me about China was the incredible size and scale of contruction currently underway. It’s almost as if there is a mass mobilisation to build skyscrapers, roads and damns. We were surprised to see very few power stations; being constantly told that one goes up every week we expected more, but then I guess China is a pretty big place.

However, littering is a really big problem in China. There seem to be plenty of bins and recycling points in towns, but people were obviously not using them. Roadsides were littered with plastic bags and various other packaging.

Air pollution was very apparent in all the big towns we cycled through, although there are initiatives in place to tackle this. The main one of these is a massive push to encourage electric bicycles. In 2008 the Chinese bought 21 million of them – compared to 9.4 million cars – and they now fill the streets. A hike on tax for petrol-powered bikes, and the addition of cycle lanes that allow people on e-bikes to bypass the worst of the traffic, have driven this trend.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it’s good to see measures tackling air pollution. On the other, electric bikes – largely powered by China’s plethora of coal-fired power stations – only shift the problem of air pollution away from cities. They don’t solve it with regards to the mitigation of climate change.

Almost nobody now rides normal bicycles in China except children, and people who can’t afford an electric one. This seems a great shame considering China was once so well known for its love of my favourite two-wheeled vehicle.

On another positive note, China’s train network is increidble well developed and whilst I didn’t take any trains during my time there, I was impressed by the scale of their network which now spans the length of the country including a 4000km bullet train line. China is moving so fast on so many fronts and the low carbon agenda is no exception, driven by necessity as much as ethics. But the obsession with rapid economic growth at all costs is also threatening this beautiful country. It was very visible through the astonishing amount of mining, pollution and environmental damage that we witnessed.

(Note: We blogged earlier on the contrasts in China’s energy-saving credentials: see Energy efficiency vs 250-metre TV screen.)