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The Greening of China

chinasolargansu.jpgAs China goes, so goes the future.

A successful bright green world requires a green China. A China that continues to spew tons of coal smoke into the air, tear up the landscape for dams and minerals, and push the adoption of the automobile as a "pillar industry" is a China that could drive the world past the environmental tipping point, regardless of the efforts of the rest of the planet. A year or two ago, the likelihood of Chinese leaders seeing this disaster unfolding and changing direction in time seemed slim. Now, we may well see a glimmer of hope.

The last month or so brought us a bonanza of reports about the new choices the Chinese leadership is making regarding the environment. Some are doubtlessly motivated by wanting to look good for the 2008 Olympics. But many of the proposals look to be the kinds of steps necessary for China to head off further environmental disaster -- big, risky steps, with the possibility of significant benefit should they succeed.

Hit the extended entry for links and discussion.

Shanghai: 100,000 Solar Roofs

California's Million Solar Roof initiative may have been put on hold, but Shanghai's more modest Hundred Thousand Solar Roof project is well underway. Xinhau News, as translated by the Worldwatch Institute, claims that putting photovoltaic solar panels on 100,000 of Shanghai's six million roofs will generate 430 million kilowatt-hours annually, roughly equivalent to the amount of power used by the whole city in... two days. Nonetheless, this will reduce coal use by 20,000 tons and CO2 output by 40,000 tons.

This points to the importance of a mix of renewable energy sources and increased efficiency of use in a transition away from carbon-intensive energy production. Even if all six million Shanghai roofs were covered in solar panels, that would only amount to about four months worth of power -- impressive, but still not enough. Hopefully, Shanghai as a whole will be taking a lesson from the Dongtan carbon-neutral expansion to the city now being built.

Green GDP

Beijing's mandate over the last couple of decades can be summed up in one word: growth. Regional leaders, once evaluated solely on party loyalty, became accountable for rapid increases in GDP, leading inexorably to environmental disaster. In early 2004, President Hu Jintao suggested that a more "scientific concept of development" would be a good idea; in early 2005, ten regions, including Beijing, began a test program to measure the environmental costs of GDP growth. None other than Pan Yue led the charge -- which is now about to rolled out nation-wide. The leadership decided on a process that calculates the "Green GDP" by subtracting the costs of natural resources and pollution from the standard GDP value. The greater the waste of resources or production of pollution, the worse the result -- for the GDP and for the regional leaders.

Criticism of the idea takes two major forms. The first, as shown in this Economist article from late October, is that figuring out precise numbers for the costs of resource waste and pollution is tricky, and prone to manipulation and fraud. The second, as discussed in this piece from the Asia Times from last week, centers on the difficulty of maintaining growth while trying to reduce or eliminate waste and pollution.

Of the two, the question of accurate and reliable measurement of costs seems the greater issue. Although there are various proposals for accounting for environmental loss as part of GDP, even green economists disagree about the details. A system with fuzzy metrics and difficult-to-confirm measurements is one just begging to be cheated. Still, it's likely that even a semi-effective system of green accounting would be better than none at all, at least under the Chinese state-capitalist economic model. It's possible -- although by no means assured -- that having an active Green GDP program will allow those running the project to fine-tune the system, learning from early mistakes.

The question of how to maintain growth while improving environmental behavior is less troubling because it's something of a bogeyman. We've seen multiple large-scale examples of economic actors and regions adopting stricter green regulations and becoming richer because of it; the "going green kills your economy" argument is a decreasingly-legitimate scare tactic. At the very least, Chinese pioneers of green development will see a growing international market for these ideas in the near future.

Mainstream Attention

The last piece of news about green moves in China may actually lead to changes outside the country. One of the most mainstream American media voices, Thomas Friedman, is now pushing the idea that China (a) is shifting to greener development, and (b) is therefore going to be a global leader in the green century while the US is caught sitting on its thumbs. Friedman, who (sad to say) is still a bit ahead-of-the-conventional-wisdom-curve on environmental issues, is nonetheless an influential voice. The halls of power in Washington DC may not follow his advice, but they pay attention to what he says. This means that, if political leaders had somehow missed that China was building a global strategic advantage by shifting green, they know now.

It's possible -- indeed, it's likely -- that the current political leadership in charge in the US will be unable to make the deft changes necessary to respond to the environmental-strategic challenge of China (and Europe and Japan) this late in their political lives. If 2006 (the next Congressional election) results in a significant shake-up, however, this could well become part of the new agenda. It would be unfortunate if the only way to get the United States to move quickly on a large-scale shift to renewable energy and high-efficiency design was to cast it as a great power competition with China (etc.), but I wouldn't complain too loudly if it happened.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Greening of China:

» Greening China from sustainablog
I'd been thinking over the last few days about a post featuring green developments in the world's fastest-growing economy; I should just assume that means that WorldChanging would beat me to the punch. [Read More]

» China Invests Green from Gil Friend
TITLE: China Invests Green URL: http://radio.weblogs.com/0109157/2005/11/15.html#a1043 IP: BLOG NAME: Gil Friend DATE: 11/15/2005 10:45:58 PM [Read More]

Comments (17)

Pace Arko:

Let's not forget that India, being nearly as populous and whose economy is growing nearly as fast, also matters to the bright green future. I know it's on a matter of time before the WC team gives us an update on green efforts in India too.

I doubt that casting this a great power competition between China and US would force the Federal Government to move any faster on this. Energy and environmental issues have already become serious foreign policy issues (Oil in the Middle East, global warming) even though the current administration doesn't view them that way.


Very true. China is no doubt the country to watch. 中国很重要。


Actauly india is bigger and growing faster in pop then china has been for quite some time in fact.


Isn't a key component of China's growth the official policy to rapidly expand use of the automobile. Wasn't this obviousuly a recipe for disaster from the git go. China had a model for how destructive this is, the United States and the rest of the industrialized world.

Yes, they have a right to all the goodies that we in the U.S. "enjoy". But just because we put our heads in the sand doesn't mean they have to as well.

We, of course, are in no position to tell the Chinese anything. Give the fact that they own all our dollars, they may soon be in a position to dictate to us.


Nice piece, Jamais. You forgot to mention the Communist Party of China Central Committee's Proposal on the Eleventh Five-year Program on National Economy and Social Development, which was adopted at the Fifth Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee, last Octobre.

Its two main objectives are the fight against China's rising inequality, and the fight against environmental degradation.

This is basically the draft for the Eleventh Five-year Program on National Economy and Social Development which will be adopted at the Fourth Session of the Tenth National People's Congress next March!


Or it could just be that they cant make enough mass transit to handle all of china but already needed a ton of roads anyway to build it.

Interesting report, Jamais, and good discussion. It is encouraging to see the greening of energy policies in China. Toilet systems don't often make the news, but both China and India have initiated projects to conserve water, improve sanitation, and prevent pollution with the use of dry, composting toilets. British sanitation engineer Paul Calvert has guided successful projects in Kerala that could serve as useful models for many areas that can't afford to waste precious water. Check it out at: www.eco-solutions.org


The main issues with the american system are..

Mass transit is based on the wrong model. The train and the bus. It should be based on the bumper car.

Why? Simple, what you REALY need NOW is a way to non polutingly and CHEAPLY get 1 or 2 people from a to b even tho there are about 50000 different a and b locations.

Mass transit as it exists in america today is an artifact of big industry of the past needing to cram 25000 low paid workers into work and then get them home again.

Now china has the potential to make cars the mas transit if they can just keep the little eltric buggies away from the behemoth construction trucks and shipping trucks.

Adam Burke:

China popn: 1.3 billion
India popn: 1.0 billion

Source: CIA World Factbook


That cant be right india passed the billion mark decades ago. erm ill have to go look.


Bah I had my numbers mixed up I was assuming 1.6 billion for india but thats the 2050 estimate. Ya they are around 1.1 billion now and growing MUCH faster then china at 1.34 or so.

Whats realy bad is china uses 3.x TIMES as much stuff to get each $ of output then india does and 13x as much as america...

Would it be fair to say people in every nation on Earth have a vital role to play in acknowledging limits to growth, confronting looming global challenges, and assuring the future for coming generations by humanely restraining rising per human over-consumption of limited resources, restricting the seemingly endless expansion of predominant economic overproduction capabilities, and holding back the rapid increase of absolute human population numbers? Given their current scale and rate of growth on the surface of the Earth, these distinctly human "overgrowth" activities appear patently unsustainable on the small, finite planet God has blessed us to inhabit.

We are all in this together, are we not? Although no one is at fault for situation in which humanity could soon find itself in Century XXI, everyone can help by changing longstanding ways of thinking and behaving with regard to human over-consumption, unchecked expansion of big business, and human reproduction.


America has a negative pop growth rate and only grows by gobbling up massive numbers of immagrants.

Thanks for your comment about the US population growth rate and the challenges posed by immigration.

Please see that the declining population growth rates of some countries like the USA need not blind us to the fact that the rate of growth of absolute global human population numbers is too rapid. More human beings gobble up more resources and crowd other species out of their habitats. More human beings mean more automobiles, more pollution, more pressures on the environment. How does a finite world indefinitely sustain a species that chooses to live without accepting biophysical limits to growth?

Excellent post. I was inspired by this post as well as a slough of other recent news coming of China in recent weeks to write a summary of the assorted measures China is taking to seemingly 'go green'. Check it out here.

It seems like they are finally recognizing the necessity of sustainable development and are actually putting the effort (and the money, see the post) where their mouth is.

Remarkable contribution. Thanks Jesse. For more emerging scientific data on the human population, click go to >>>>>>>>>> http://journal.aol.com/sesalmony/HumanandEnvironmentalHealth/


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