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China takes small steps towards a greener future

When you are on a daytime flight, coming into land, and can’t see the ground below due to smog, it’s not only rather disconcerting but also concerning.

And so it was as we arrived in Hefei the capital of China's Anhui province. A heavy blanket of smog hung over the city, so bad it was hardly visible, and upon disembarking we could taste the familiar (to us from Beijing) pollution in the air.

We thought perhaps it might be clearer by the time we reached Huainan, an hour further north. However, around 30 minutes into our journey we reached a road block.

The smog was so bad along one section of the motorway, the police had shut the road. The 60-minute journey ended up taking us twice as long, and needless to say, as we drove around the back roads, there was no let up in the conditions.

The world’s largest floating solar panel farm in Anhui province, China. Credit: Debi Edward

It wasn’t the ideal scene as we finally arrived to begin filming at the world’s largest floating solar panel farm, but it perfectly summed up the battle facing China in its effort to clean up its air - and its image.

The Air Quality Index App on my phone had a reading of 289 for Huianan. It was 37 in London.

The challenge facing China to improve its air quality and environment is huge. The country accounts for half of the world's coal consumption; the concentration of harmful PM 2.5 particles in the air is 48 milligrams per cubic metre compared to the global average of 19.

So when the Chinese government talks about hitting its CO2 reduction targets three years ahead of schedule, you have to recognise that they are coming from a pretty low starting point. The country is several years behind us when it comes to all manner of environmental action. There is no established recycling system to talk of in any of its major cities.

A country and economy of this size can’t just end its dependency on coal, Credit: Debi Edward

These conditions prevail despite China having, in the past few years, established itself as a world leader in solar and wind installation. The solar panel site we went to is already vast, and it’s set to almost double in size by the end of next year. Companies are clambering over themselves to enter this profitable market, with the government offering some firms financial incentives.

The problem is, a country and economy of this size can’t just end its dependency on coal, especially while battling a trade war with the United States. The transition to green energy must be gradual and it must not detract from economic growth.

China has become an unlikely champion of action on climate change, and its President Xi Jingping a leading advocate for a cleaner, greener future.

The country has the means, the motive, and, thanks to a growing discontent among its people, the will, to change. But at the solar panel farm in Anhui, the sun is going to be fighting the smog for at least a few more years to come.