Smart Talks: Building a Climate-Smart Low-Carbon Village With Local Resources -- By Emma Fu

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Editor’s note: In August 2023, Caixin Global and Yale Center Beijing jointly launched a Smart Talks on Climate Change program, including an essay competition, to help endow leaders of the next generation aged under 30 with the wherewithal to tackle the problem. We’re publishing the top three essays from the winners of the competition as this year’s program concluded in December.

Oct. 3, 2023, Mashaowan village, Shandong province. There I was, along with 16 other teenagers and their parents. It was my 3rd trip in the past three months to this small village with 200 people. We came to study an experiment I had begun about three months ago: building a climate-smart low-carbon village with area-specific green technologies.

It all started with a journey to rural Jiangxi province in the summer of 2022. I was in a research group studying climate change impact in rural areas. That summer was full of extreme weather like heat waves, frequent flooding and forest fires. The words climate change were mentioned on a daily basis. However, the villagers I spoke with had very little knowledge of climate change or available modern technologies for addressing the problem. I then learned that rural villages are the weakest links in our fight against climate change. They need to get real help, such as adequate local support and technologies.

But how can a 14-year-old make a difference here? After the Jiangxi trip, I began taking classes on climate change, learning about its causes and effects. I have also been following up on the latest technologies and innovative practices such as renewable energy and green cooling systems. Among all the provinces, Shandong has the highest carbon emissions in China. So, this past summer I began my second research tour in Mashaowan, a six-hour journey from Beijing. The moment I set foot in the village, the first things that caught my eye were the huge spinning wind turbine blades and the clusters of glittering solar panels on mountains nearby. Clean energy infrastructure on one side, shabby village buildings on the other; old and new, ancient and modern clashed and embraced each other in this village with 2000 years of history.

Understanding the major emissions sources of the village is vital to providing solutions in reducing its carbon footprint. According to my interviews with the villagers, most households use a combination of coal, straw and firewood for cooking throughout the year and domestic heating in winter. All this human activity produces about 700 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, very high for a village of its size. I also learned that the wind turbines and solar panels nearby do not belong to the village. The locals complained to me about the increased electricity usage in summer due to more frequent use of electric fans. Using fans actually doesn’t help much with reducing the summer heat. If using air-conditioning is not financially viable, are there any other ways to improve their quality of life without increasing the overall carbon footprint?

One hot July afternoon, I was strolling by the small pond in the village. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I put my hands in the natural spring water to relax. Ah, it cooled me down in a second. The natural spring water temperature is measured at 14-16 degrees Celsius all year round. I remembered reading about the stories of how several environmental experts at Princeton University overhauled home cooling and heating systems by using cool and hot water instead of furnaces and air-conditioning. So this could be a perfect solution! In summer, the cold spring water can be a good natural cooling source, without using chemical coolant in a typical air-conditioner (A/C). In winter, the pond water temperature tends to stay well above the ambient temperature and can then be used as a geothermal heating source for heat pumps, thus reducing the reliance on fossil fuels and lessening the impact on climate change!

As I was retelling my story to the group, they couldn’t wait to see how the natural cooling system works. Pumps, pipes, terminals, heat exchangers, every part was in the right place. 1, 2, 3, the system was on! The room cooled off from 30 degrees Celsius to 23 within 7 minutes. Power consumption was measured at about 100 watts, 90% less than a regular A/C. The entire equipment only costs half of the price of a regular A/C. In addition, one set of equipment can provide cooling for up to 8 households. Everyone present was impressed with this simple but highly efficient eco-friendly system. My climate-smart low-carbon village plan is a comprehensive one that not only includes geothermal energy but also solar energy, both thermal and photovoltaic, and wind energy. The next step-up would then be to install a mini wind turbine, heat pumps, solar panels and storage batteries for a near net-zero effect.

On the very last day of the trip, as our group was waving goodbye to the villagers, I saw a dragonfly skimming the water and gentle ripples spreading over the surface in the little pond. So peaceful and quiet. Nothing seemed to have changed. However, after seeing how my little experiment worked, I know something has changed for the better. I now have an answer to the question: How could a teenager like me make a difference? The answer is: “Talk the talk, walk the walk and make an impact.” In just three months I have come a long way but my journey of fighting climate change has just begun.

Emma Yining Fu is a 9th-grader at Beijing National Day School.

You can click here to read the original article published on Caixin Global.