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Why the Tarim Desert Highway becomes the first to achieve zero-carbon emissions in China?

Shiliuyun-Xinjiang Daily (Reporters Yu Jiangyan, Correspondent Wang Chengkai) news: On June 2, 2024, vehicles traverse the Tarim Desert Highway, with lush vegetation on both sides of the road. Occasionally, clusters of photovoltaic panels are scattered throughout, using "sunlight" as a power source to pump water for irrigating the surrounding vegetation, and they have become a new scenic spot in the desert.

Photo taken in June 2022 shows a zero-carbon desert highway demonstration project has been completed and put into operation in the Taklimakan Desert in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. (Photo by Chen Shibing)

In 2024, two years after the vegetation along the Tarim Desert Highway completely bid farewell to diesel engine-powered irrigation, a new vista has emerged. Presently, approximately 3,133 hectares of shelterbelts on both sides of the highway have been irrigated using photovoltaic power, with the average height of the shrubbery exceeding two meters, and hundreds of species of birds migrating and nesting along this green corridor.

Two years ago, on June 2, 2022, the zero-carbon desert highway demonstration project for the Tarim Desert Highway was launched. Building on the initial connection of 11 water source wells to the power grid and the pilot construction of photovoltaic power stations for 12 wells, the Tarim oilfield has transformed 86 diesel-powered water source wells to photovoltaic power, achieving a "diesel to electricity" transition for the ecological protection forest irrigation along the desert highway, leading to zero carbon emissions. And the Tarim Desert Highway has become China's first zero-carbon desert highway.

Photo taken in June 2022 shows vegetation along the Tarim Desert Highway is irrigated with the help of solar power-fueled pumps in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. (Photo by Chen Shibing)

The Tarim Desert Highway's photovoltaic power station, with a total installed capacity of over 3,800 kilowatts, generates nearly four million kilowatt-hours of green electricity annually. This is equivalent to replacing 1,188 tons of standard coal and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2,643 tons.

"The ecological shelterbelt can also absorb about 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, and the carbon sink can offset the carbon emissions from passing vehicles," said Tao Jian, assistant to the manager of the Tarim Oilfield's Tazhong Area and director of the Ground Engineering Department.

Completed in 1995, the Tarim Desert Highway has a total length of 566 km, the longest of its kind in the world stretching through a shifting desert. The construction of this highway not only solved the transportation difficulties for deep desert exploration and oil development but also broke through the traffic barriers between the north and south of the basin, shortening the distance from Hotan Prefecture to Urumqi by more than 500 km.

In 2003, to combat the erosion of the road by windblown sand, the ecological project of the Tarim Desert Highway shelterbelt was initiated with a total investment of 220 million yuan (about 30.66 million U.S. dollars). And it was fully completed in April 2006. Oil workers planted shelterbelts alongside the desert highway and set up 109 well houses along the shelterbelt for water pumping and irrigation, allowing more than 20 million drought-resistant and alkali-tolerant plants to take deep root and firmly hold back the sand.

Initially, the well houses used diesel generators for water pumping. In recent years, the Tarim Oilfield has accelerated the implementation of measures to expand greening and reduce carbon emissions, replacing all diesel power with photovoltaic power for water pumping and irrigation of the shelterbelt.

After using green energy powered by sunlight, the deafening roar of diesel engines is no longer present. "In the past, the diesel engine would run for 12 hours a day, and it would be noisy for 12 hours," said Wang Yabin, a greening worker at the No. 12 water source well of the Tarim Desert Highway. Back then, after stopping irrigation at night, there was no electricity available, and facing the dark desert, time was particularly hard to endure.

Now, with solar photovoltaic power, there is no noise, and it is clean and environmentally friendly, providing continuous power supply for 24 hours. Wang Yabin can now use a refrigerator to store vegetables and fruits, and even watch TV.

Photo taken on June 2, 2024 shows an oil worker patrols along the shelterbelt in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. (Photo by Chen Shibing)

Over the years, the Tazhong Area of the Tarim Oilfield has upheld the enduring spirit of the oil industry. Now, a signboard along the desert highway has evolved into a cherished backdrop for visitors capturing memories with their cameras.

"Visitors who pause to photograph the sign often express awe at the sight of such verdant growth in the desert," shared Ma Qiang, a lead supervisor from the Production Operations Department of the Tazhong Area. "Their appreciation is what propels us forward." With unwavering commitment, he conducts weekly patrols along the highway to ensure that every tree is adequately watered.

The realization of the zero-carbon demonstration project along the desert highway is not the end of our efforts but a testament to our ongoing pursuit. And the Tarim Oilfield's dedicated workers will continue to cultivate greenery in the Taklimakan Desert, infusing this once-barren expanse with a renewed sense of life and hope.

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