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The End is Nigh

Note: The following post was taken from China Daily.

Peggy Liu said she believes the world may have only five years to avert an environmental disaster.

The internationally renowned environmental champion, who now heads a joint Sino-American clean energy body, said that time is running out fast.

"The scary thing is that five years is just the blink of an eye in energy terms. Two years ago, we perhaps thought we had 10 years," she said in an interview in Beijing last week.

Liu's key focus is clean energy and its efficient use, a major plank of which is making sure that new buildings that are being constructed now use energy efficiently.

An adviser to former US President Bill Clinton's climate change initiative and honored last year by Time magazine as an "environmental hero", Liu now chairs JUCCCE (Joint US-China Cooperation on Clean Energy), a non-profit body aimed at pushing the use of clean technologies in China.

We feel that the single biggest lever when it comes to pollution is China. If you don't fix it in China, then what you do in the rest of the world is not going to help. So we are focused on China and want to change the way it creates its energy," she said.

A major part of JUCCCE's work will be in bringing experts to speak at training sessions at existing mayoral training programs in Beijing.

It will be these key decision-makers attending these programs who will be overseeing China's rapidly accelerating urbanization - it is estimated that 350 million people in China, more than the population of the United States - will move to cities over the next 20 years.

"That will mean 50,000 skyscrapers getting built, 170 new public transport systems and the creation of 12 megatropolises of 60 million people or more," she said.

Liu, who is now based in Shanghai, said that if this new infrastructure is built efficiently then the carbon dioxide levels in the world's atmosphere could reach the 50 parts per million, which climate scientist perceive to be the tipping point.

"At this level you get all these catastrophic scenarios of polar bears having no glaciers to sit on, " said Liu.

Liu, a former management consultant at McKinsey & Co, said planners and those taking decisions need to be aware of the business case of putting up energy-efficient buildings.

The economic case, she said, is that it costs considerably more to retrofit buildings to any future environmental standards than to build them with the right efficiency specification in the first place.

"Return on investment on infrastructure can fall by as much as 30 percent if you have to retrofit it. We see now in the US how difficult it is to retrofit. China has the opportunity to leapfrog all of that and achieve energy efficiency at a tenth of the cost," she said.

Liu's work is also focused on encouraging greater use of Smart Grid technologies when laying new power lines. By the end of 2007 China had an installed electricity capacity of 713 GW but by 2020 this will need to grow to 1,000 GW, some 30 per ent greater capacity. JUCCCE has its own Smart Grid Cooperative.

Liu is insistent that new power lines need to be capable of operating with the new technology.

"In China they are building new power lines everywhere but if they put in old-style power lines it is very difficult to retrofit them," she said.

JUCCCE, which has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and San Francisco, has partnered with Duke Energy, a leading US Smart Grid technology company, to help get its message across. Smart Grid's success also depends on developers embracing the relevant technology.

Liu, a graduate of MIT in electrical engineering and computer science, went on to become a dotcom entrepreneur in Silcon Valley in the 1990s, before getting involved in the environmental field.

One scheme that JUCCE is getting funding for at present is to issue 10 million energy saving light bulbs to students in China in exchange for old ones. The initiative is partly aimed at engaging the next generation in green issues but could have a direct environmental impact.

"We want to aim our message at students since they will adopt these ideas and eventually they will be the majority of the population," she said.

She said China cannot become green by just focusing on building flagship energy efficient buildings such as the Water Cube at last year's Olympics.

"The problem with buildings like the Water Cube is that they are showcases which are not replicable on a daily everyday basis. You can't have a lot of buildings like the Water Cube," she said.

As part of the mayoral training program, Liu said she hopes to reach mayors and vice mayors of 683 cities and up to 1,000 heads of State-owned enterprises over the next three years.

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