An expert's point of view on a current event.

Think Again: Green China

Is China the green model of the world's future -- or an industrial polluter on a massive scale?

BEIJING - DECEMBER 13: A wind turbine is seen in sunset on the south bank of Guanting Reservoir on December 13, 2007 in Beijing, China. Beijing has put forward "Green Olympics" as one of the three themes for 2008 Olympic Games. As the first large-scale wind power field of Beijing, Guanting Wind Power Field that will operate at the end of this month have 33 wind turbines with a capacity of 50,000 kw, according to the local media. China has accelerated its development of wind resources and other clean energy to meet its vast long-term energy needs, and help to achieve the "Green Olympic" goal. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

Two years ago, the New York Times reported that China was "choking on growth," with rapid economic development ravaging its environment. But in a recent column, the Times' Tom Friedman declared that "Red China [has] decided to become Green China," writing that the developing country now outpaces the United States in its pursuit of alternative energy.

Two years ago, the New York Times reported that China was "choking on growth," with rapid economic development ravaging its environment. But in a recent column, the Times’ Tom Friedman declared that "Red China [has] decided to become Green China," writing that the developing country now outpaces the United States in its pursuit of alternative energy.

The Times example illustrates the schism in how the West regards China on the environment. One side argues that China is a pure environmental villain — the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and an unmatched polluter. So, this case goes, the U.S. Congress shouldn’t commit to capping carbon emissions when Beijing hasn’t accepted binding reduction targets. The other side contends that China is already so far ahead of the United States in green technology that Americans should be trembling for their jobs, not to mention their competitive edge in the global marketplace.

On the eve of Obama’s first trip to Beijing and with less than a month to go before the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen, it’s time to think again: Is China the green model of the future, or the brown reminder of our industrial past?

"China is going green in a hurry."

Yes and no. It is perplexing to find yourself in Beijing reading foreign headlines about how China is fast becoming the greenest place on earth. On smoggier days, it is difficult to see the city’s skyline. The U.S. Embassy’s daily air-pollution readings, sent out on Twitter, typically alternate between "hazardous" and "very hazardous." Ma Jun, a well-known environmentalist, says that his wife thinks he’s crazy to jog outdoors. "There is a great difference," notes Wen Bo, another Beijing environmentalist, "between what local Chinese and foreign observers mean by ‘green.’"

Rapid industrialization and urbanization have taken a mighty toll on China’s air, water, and soil. Half of the country’s major waterways are unfit for drinking or agriculture, according to the latest data from the environment protection ministry. The World Bank reports 750,000 people die prematurely from air and water pollution in China each year. And in 2006, Forbes found that all of the world’s top ten most-polluted cities were in China

The country’s leaders, who breathe Beijing’s air, are well aware of the problems. They have recently taken steps to build and enforce green regulations, including promoting the environment protection ministry to the cabinet. But the efforts to enact clean air and water measures are still very much a faltering work in progress.

Bottom line: China might be taking great green steps forward, but it is starting from many steps back. In a reverse of Western environmental history, China is focusing on energy before pollution, adopting some of the globe’s most ambitious targets: to derive at least 15 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020 and to reduce energy-intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percent over a five-year period. Implementing these energy targets will serve Beijing’s twin purposes of increasing energy security and stimulating local economic activity. But these measures still won’t leave China greener than countries in the West — particularly since it still has a tremendous and expensive pollution problem to face at some point in the future.

"China is surging ahead of the United States in alternative energy."

No. Recent articles about the vast numbers of new wind farms being erected in Inner Mongolia and solar panel plants built in Tianjin give the impression that  China’s government has not just embraced alternative energy, but that it also has become or will soon be a world leader.

Most experts scoff at the idea that any country could be "ahead" at all. "It’s impossible to say," says Tim Cronin of the American Council on Renewable Energy’s U.S.-China program. "China is surging ahead on many things. The United States meanwhile has advantages on many technologies, [and] greater expertise in finance and project management." And given that "alternative energy" encompasses such a broad swath of sectors, from power generation to building efficiency to transportation, it’s pretty hard to imagine there could be a single winner. It’s not like a space race, where the country that puts the first man on the moon wins.

What’s more, just because China is manufacturing green technologies doesn’t mean it’s using them. Indeed, China exports 90 percent of the solar panels it manufactures. And while renewable energy use is growing, it currently supplies just 9 percent of China’s total power. It’s possible that China will one day be the solar-panel and wind-turbine factory to the world, even as it struggles to fully utilize or create a domestic market for green technology itself.

"China’s one-party political system is an advantage for going green."

Not necessarily. Friedman famously said he wishes the United States could "be China for a day." While climate talks drag on in Washington, it has become fashionable for some to look admiringly, or even enviously, at China’s authoritarian government system. While U.S. politicians plan for the next four or eight years, the thinking goes, the Communist dynasty is planning for the next millennium.

Beijing might look like an efficient top-down regime from the outside. But in China, there is a common joke that the only policy it has implemented effectively of late is the one-child policy. In fact, not all of China’s rules come from the top — and they aren’t always followed, even if they do.

This is especially obvious if you travel to the western provinces, where local officials have a surprising amount of autonomy and often operate according to their own interests and timetables. News of the ban on plastic shopping bags, well observed in Beijing, for instance, took much longer to reach northern Harbin and remains, by all appearances, unheard of in far-western Lanzhou.

In terms of alternative energy, China’s political system is an advantage in that targets are set by a relatively small group of officials, and stimulus money can be funneled directly into choice green companies. But after a project is in motion, control necessarily decentralizes. Indeed, China’s ambitions and projects are grand, but its ability to implement them — with oversight, accountability, and appropriate market signals — remains immature.

Beneath the striking headline numbers, officials are working out serious kinks. For instance, the lure of striking gold by manufacturing green has turned the heads of mayors across China. Now, the State Council is trying to rein in an overheating solar sector by ordering plant closures. And though China is building wind farms, 20 percent of installed capacity is not connected to the grid yet — due to technological gaffes and politicking as various established energy suppliers attempt to block new rivals.

The fact that coal is so plentiful and cheaply mined presents another hurdle. Only one of China’s top ten power companies appears on track to meet its goal for alternative energy use, according to an analysis by Greenpeace China. Yang Ailun, the group’s climate and energy campaign manager, explains: "The problem is simple. The [power] companies earn more money with coal."

"The United States should fear China’s ‘Green Sputnik.’"

No need to. Behind all the recent hype about Green China, there is an element of fear — an implicit sense that if China succeeds in its green ambitions, the United States will somehow lose. But lose what? Newspaper commentary doesn’t specify, but on Capitol Hill, the most obvious, obsessive fear is about jobs. What kind of jobs? "Green-collar" ones. But those remain undefined and overhyped.

The fact is: There will almost certainly be a net gain of jobs in both the United States and China, wherever the nails are finally hammered into wind turbines. As the global green economy develops, it will create jobs in manufacturing, technology, auditing, sales, marketing, maintenance, financing, installation, and engineering. As for the jobs in development, lingering intellectual property rights concerns mean that Shanghai is unlikely to unseat Silicon Valley anytime soon.

"There are jobs everywhere these technologies could be deployed and taken care of," says Linden Ellis, U.S. director of the nonprofit ChinaDialogue.

So, why all the fuss on the Hill? The answer lies in the Rust Belt. China has an edge in that its skilled and unskilled labor is much cheaper, and many manufacturing jobs will flourish in China for that reason. U.S. politicians are deeply protective of the ailing automotive industry in particular, but that some jobs from Cadillac plants in Detroit will move to electric-car plants in Dalian seems inevitable. Rather than punishing China, Washington should fund job retraining programs, embracing the new sectors and retrofitting the American workforce.

Ultimately, the anxiety over green success might reveal less about China than it does about the United States. The once-unrivaled world superpower now suffers from a high unemployment rate, dragging recession, and dispiriting news from its war in Afghanistan — which might stoke concern about the Asian country whose GDP growth barely registered the worldwide downturn. "There is a feeling," one federal agency official in Washington told me, "that any new industry that involves innovation, like the green economy, that we should own that — and if we don’t, what’s our competitive advantage, what’s our place in the world?"

China’s green aspirations, while they aren’t nearly as threatening as they may be construed, have served yet another wake-up call that the United States can’t be complacent about its place in the world. That recognition has been painful, even if the Green Sputnik menace is largely a phantom.

"China is the world’s climate bad guy and likely Copenhagen spoiler."

Wrong. Not only is China is paradoxically home to some of the blackest rivers and greenest ambitions on the planet, but it also has the world’s best and worst record on global warming.

China is the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter, and its carbon emissions are growing faster than any country on earth. Meanwhile, its policies on energy efficiency and alternative energy have more potential than any other country’s to reduce carbon emissions below projected figures, according to the International Energy Agency.

This is a product of China’s scale. With 350 million people — more than the total population of the United States — expected to move from China’s countryside to its fast-growing cities over the next 20 years, energy demand and carbon emissions will almost inevitably soar, possibly even doubling. But while China cannot decrease its emissions, it can bend the growth curve down more than any other country.

"The absolute emissions will, nonetheless, despite its best efforts, continue to grow, for some time to come," says the NRDC’s Finamore. "What China is already doing is going to slow down the growth of China’s CO2 emissions, far below business as usual."

But blaming China has become the path of least resistance in Washington. "The U.S. is responsible more than any other country for the historical carbon burden in the atmosphere, and the average American still uses around four times as much carbon every day as the average Chinese," says noted environmental writer Bill McKibben. "This is just the talk of people who don’t want to change and are looking for an excuse. It’s pretty pathetic."

Indeed, scapegoating China — which has been one of two key objections to passing U.S. climate legislation, the other being domestic economic concerns — significantly weakens the United States’ negotiating position in Copenhagen. Having failed to pass a major climate change bill, the U.S. negotiators will in effect have one arm tied behind their back, unable to credibly make demands without evidence that United States is also stepping up to deal with the problem. China, which has at least some rules on the books, won’t feel much direct pressure to reform.

The green-tech space race isn’t one that one side wins and the other loses. When it comes to climate change, either both sides win or both sides — and the planet — lose.

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina
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