17 Aug 2009: Report

The Great Paradox of China:
Green Energy and Black Skies

China is on its way to becoming the world’s largest producer of renewable energy, yet it remains one of the most polluted countries on earth. A year after the Beijing Olympics, economic and political forces are combining to make China simultaneously a leader in alternative energy – and in dirty water and air.

by christina larson

This month, on the first anniversary of the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing’s skies were a hazy gray. Walking down the street, one was left with a tickle in the throat and burning eyes. A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, conducted jointly by Peking University and Oregon State University, found that Beijing’s $20 million investment to scrub the skies for the Olympics in fact had little impact on air quality. The U.S. embassy in Beijing now maintains a Twitter feed posting data from an air-quality monitoring station on the embassy compound; readings of large particulates in the air in recent weeks have ranged from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” to “hazardous.”

The experience of daily life in Beijing hardly gives the impression that the last year has been a watershed for the environment in China. Being in the capital, one can’t help but feel a little quizzical glancing at recent headlines from newspapers in Washington, New York, and London announcing China’s green-tech revolution. (This is what an eco-friendly revolution feels like?) It’s tempting to shrug and wonder whether the legacy of new green initiatives will be as lackluster as the “green Olympics” – or to feel blue at the lack of promised “blue skies.”

Yet for an entirely different perspective on China’s recent environmental progress, take the ultra-modern bullet train a half-hour southwest of Beijing to the port city of Tianjin. In just a little over four years, a mix of government and foreign investment has transformed this mid-sized
China may soon be both the greenest and blackest place on earth.
Chinese city into the global manufacturing hub of the world’s wind power industry. China’s installed wind capacity has doubled in each of the past four years. Many experts seem reasonably optimistic that China could meet its ambitious renewable energy plans to derive at least 15 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The country also is striving to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percent over a five-year period.

These two targets represent some of the most ambitious green goals in the world, and are expected to make China — in just over a decade — the world’s largest producer and consumer of alternative energy.

China watchers worldwide have taken note. Earlier this month, a prominent American venture capitalist and the CEO of General Electric published a joint op-ed in The Washington Post, enthusing, “China’s commitment to developing clean energy technologies and markets is breathtaking” — even outpacing the U.S. and putting Beijing “in the lead today.”

From the outside, China is seen as passing spectacular new renewable energy goals, building massive wind farms and hydropower stations overnight and perhaps one day even giving American and European companies a run for their money in the global green-tech market. But from the inside, what emerges is a more muddled picture. The daily experience is that the air and water quality is bad, in some places getting marginally better or staying the same, in some cases getting worse.

“How do you reconcile these different pictures of China?” asks Barbara Finamore, founder and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China Program. “Both are true at once. It’s something we struggle with all the time.”

Indeed, China may soon be simultaneously the greenest and the blackest place on earth. The country is poised to be at once the world’s leader in alternative energy — and its leading emitter of C02. Alternative energy as a percentage of the total energy mix is increasing, but it will complement —
Alternative energy will complement, not replace, growth in coal power.
not replace — growth in coal power. In fact, in a decade coal is expected to supply about 70 percent of China’s energy. Because of the sheer scale, diversity, and complexity of China, it is possible for the country to take some great green leaps forward, in particular progress toward its alternative energy and energy efficiency targets, while at the same time having its rivers remain black and its air quality a health hazard.

To some extent this varied picture is to be expected. As Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s China Program, explains: “I think the government is trying very hard, and they’re a developing country with huge challenges — different things will move forward at different speeds.”

But there may also be another pattern at work. As Beijing-based political commentator Zhao Jing — who writes in the English-language press under the name of Michael Anti — puts it: “There are really two sets of ‘green’ issues in China, the global and the domestic — those where economic interests align with green targets, and those where they don’t.” In his estimation, China has made striking progress on the former set of issues, and rather less on the second.

For example, China has made impressive gains in quickly developing its alternative energy industry, in part because large new investments benefit everyone — from wind turbine manufacturers to local governments (which gain tax revenue from new industry) to future consumers. Yet, on domestic air and water pollution — where what is needed is stricter regulatory enforcement, potentially limiting industry — Chinese environmental groups believe the picture may be getting worse. And the environmental lawyers and advocates who would bring these issues to the attention of authorities are facing tougher crackdowns than ever.

At the same time, China is pouring billions of dollars into alternative energy — a commitment that, when taken as a percentage of GDP, is 10 times that of the United States. “China’s biggest green achievement has been to develop alternative energy,” says Jin Jiamin, founder and executive director of Global Environmental Institute, a Chinese NGO based in Beijing. “In the U.S., it takes time for ideas to become reality. But in China, it’s different. It’s easy for any new policies to be implemented quickly.”

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Julian L. Wong, founder of the Beijing Energy Network and now a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, says that the outlook and reported figures so far look good. He points to government statistics indicating that energy consumption per unit of GDP dropped by 10 percent between 2006 and 2008. One reason for rapid progress, he explains, is that these key energy initiatives are backed by China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, the ministry responsible for economic development.

“Using energy more efficiently makes good economic sense,” he says. And diversifying China’s energy portfolio also appeals to Beijing, which has been concerned with energy security since the 1980s.

Of course, there are some important caveats. In China, “alternative energy” includes both hydro and nuclear power, which are often not classified as such elsewhere. “Please remember, there are negative environmental consequences for dams and nuclear,” says Hu Kanping, editor of the Beijing-based Environmental Protection Journal. “I do not think those are really ‘clean’ energy sources.” This month China announced plans to increase nuclear energy capacity tenfold over the next decade.

While the installation of wind turbines has proceeded at a furious pace in China, not all of the newly installed capacity is actually available to consumers through the grid. “Renewable energy providers often can’t always get access to the market,” says Ray Cheung, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. “If you’re a solar or wind energy company in China and you can’t gain access to the grid, nobody’s going to buy your power.”

Forbes recently reported that as many as 30 percent of “wind power assets” are not adequately connected to the grid. The obstacles are in part technical (the existing grid has not been designed for the fluctuating energy production from wind power), and in part political (the powerful companies that control access to the grid often have cozy relationships with coal energy suppliers and can block green newcomers).

Finally, while progress is almost certainly being made on both alternative energy and energy efficiency in China, it’s worth noting that most data for quantifying that progress has been supplied by the government itself. For instance, the state-owned People’s Daily publishes the quarterly figures on energy efficiency that are in turn cited by both domestic and international press. “There’s still the question of how can we verify figures,” says Wong.

Overall, however, on these emerging fronts the trends seem positive. But on domestic environmental issues — those that impact the daily lives of the Chinese people — the picture is less rosy.

“Water quality is probably deteriorating,” says Jin Jiamin, of the Global Environmental Institute. “The reason is industrial pollution.” Indeed, the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s most recent annual report on the state of the environment acknowledges that cleanup efforts failed to make
Investment in green energy is thriving in China, yet enforcement of regulations is not.
improvements in the water quality of China’s seven major rivers. Mortality from cancers linked with pollution — including stomach cancer and liver cancer — continues to rise, according to Ministry of Health statistics. Smog blankets large Chinese cities. The toxic industry of importing dangerous “e-waste” (used electronics and computer parts containing hazardous chemicals) continues to flourish in Guiyu, as documentary photographer Alex Hofford has demonstrated, despite laws in place to shut down the profitable trade.

The reality is that, even as investment to stimulate new green industries is thriving in China, enforcement of green regulations that may limit industrial and economic activity is not. As Charles McElwee, a Shanghai-based environmental lawyer, explains: “Most actions aimed at energy will have some impact on local environment, but China has not shown willingness to commit the same level of resources to enforce existing environmental laws, which would have the most immediate impact on citizens.”

And as The Washington Post has reported, tough economic times have brought even laxer environmental enforcement for factories in southern China. Peng Peng, research director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, told the Post: “With the poor economic situation, officials are thinking twice about whether to close polluting factories, whether the benefits to the environment really outweigh the dangers to social stability.”

While China’s national priorities have shifted, its politics haven’t. When economic and environmental priorities align, astoundingly rapid transformation is possible. But when interests compete, the economy still trumps the environment.

POSTED ON 17 Aug 2009 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Asia North America 


Whatever advancements China may be making in renewable energy in its own country are outweighed by the negative environmental impact they are having in Africa.

Posted by TL Smith on 18 Aug 2009

How can a discussion such as this occur without ANY mention of China's population pressures?

I realize China's (and the world's) environmental plight is not just a matter of its population, but that does not negate the very real consequence of human numbers on the air, land, and waters.
Posted by Tim Hogan on 19 Aug 2009

I agree with Tim.

Also, it seems that improving the environment is a long-term process, a few years of Olympic
"green efforts" aren't going to improve decades of economic expansion coupled with pollution.
To expect results immediately is somewhat jumping the gun, and also not understanding that the reason we have environmental problems is due to failing to think long-term during the Industrial Revolution - to really correct all these problems will probably take even longer than it took to create them. It seems that current criticism of environmental policy fails again to think long-term, again augmenting the original problem - the very way that we think.

If I were to put myself in the CCP's shoes, I would also find it very difficult to decide whether or not to prioritize lifting millions out of poverty in perhaps environmentally unfriendly ways, or spending money investing in green tech where the benefits might not be seen in the short-term.
Posted by CC on 20 Aug 2009

I do feel bombarded by an enormous amount of green-related, usually positive press concerning China and it's recent achievements. As is the case with any industrial achievement in the developing world, there are two sides to the story and, to that extent, this article is on point.

And yet, many of us in the domestic Energy biz are watching and waiting for something, anything to happen. We have a lot of questions and very few answers. The momentum in this country has been absolutely zapped, from where I sit. In addition, we have few national standards to speak of and I have little faith in the people who will be crafting these new laws, i.e. the shambles that has become of "cap and trade".

Our energy-related politics is stagnant and energy-related investment has stalled. So to see a country like China forge ahead, in effect creating a market that doesn't exist yet (an ironically American business model) is exciting. Most young Americans in Energy are "China-watchers" by necessity. And most of us have our bags packed...
Posted by Rice on 20 Aug 2009

Why so much emphasis on renewables and so little attention to nuclear and no attention to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) from fossil plants? Certainly renewables receive considerable attention these days, but most all serious climate change analyses suggest some combination of all three will emerge over the next several decades. A little more hard-headed pragmatism please.
Posted by BAP on 21 Aug 2009

If in the "Paradox" we work toward to the "green" and leave from the "black," we still have the hope...

Posted by Jerry on 21 Aug 2009

Saying that the air quality in Beijing has shown no improvement is not true. I am a Chinese American living and working in Beijing and Shanghai. I do witnessed many more blue-sky days in Beijing and Shanghai recently (even more so in Beijing). The Beijing government cut 20 percent of the traffic by allowing any private owned cars on roads only four days in weekdays.

However, one should not expect China to lead the world in green-tech revolution. Many (or most of) investments in green-tech in China are either GDP and export driven, quicker-money making driven, or publicity driven. For example, 90 percent of the solar panels made in China are exported overseas.

Posted by XDH on 22 Aug 2009

To Smith,

Let Africa decide how to develop by themselves. If no colonization of Western countries, they will live better. I think developed countries should pay back what they didn't deserve.
Posted by Bin on 22 Aug 2009

Thank You Christina for writing this valid and articulate description of China solar manufacture. The richest man in China owns Suntech, and he sure didn't get that way by being a believer in a "green future." These are the paradoxical double standards which defy every attempt at making the right moves towards that objective- to pollute less CO2. Their factories are still run on dirty coal, and they dump toxic waste into "our" oceans, and their rivers. China didn't even event Solar technology, and they are doing what they do best- pirate legitimate inventions, robbing creativity, and making a huge environmental, political, and economic mess in the process. Not a single product has genuinely risen from the confines of Chinese innovation and invention.

My understanding of trade, and I could certainly be wrong, is that a country is to produce to its own capacity, then export what is left over. At least this use to be the principle of trade. Yet, they hog-pirate our creative genius and attempt to infiltrate our markets while dumping their cheap products on our markets- because they have absolutely no sense of human rights and exploit labor hideously, they have an unfair advantage and a flexible artificial pricing regimen.

What happened to supply and demand? Now that the U.S is in the worst economic shape since the depression, the government is borrowing money from China to stimulate our own economy. Why is our government purchasing Chinese subsidized solar panels, through our consumer subsided markets? How is funneling borrowed chinese stimulus back into China supposed to, in the least, get us further out of deficit?

An absolute atrocity is what it is. Politicians are sneaking pro-solar bills while we are sleeping, and they are the ones who will be profiting immensely through allowing these 100+ Chinese manufacturers to set foot on U.S soil and Aiding them through the loopholes in our system which is generally protected by our Imports Administration's anti-dumping laws, along with Department of Justice's antitrust laws.

We're not talking tires, linens, or steel here either. This is subsidized money we're talking about, and is usually traced directly back to your tax dollars.

Then again, who really cares until you've lost your jobs right...?

Posted by Paul H. on 28 Aug 2009

Great to read such a wonderful article. Yes the paradox exists and very prominently. Striking a
balance is very necessary. The mean and mad industrial growth is taking its toll on the environment. Let hope China emerges "CLEAN" in this!
Posted by Mayank Agarwal on 31 Aug 2009

If we remember the past of China, we need not be discouraged for this controversy. Balanced planning can only be made by those who are well equipped in every way. A country like China, which was striving just to get rid of hunger, illness and lack of good education in recent past, this kind of paradox is nothing to wonder. The way China has shown its capacity in solving the problems of the country in the past, we can be reasonably hopeful that it will shift now its priority to balanced development.
Posted by padam pande on 17 Sep 2009

I think we should give China credit for trying. Being a rapidly developing country, they are attempting what countries like USA and Britain didn't even bother doing when they were developing countries themselves - a large scale attempt to reduce pollution. Per capita, China can not even compare to the energy consumption levels of an American. Nor do I think the average Chinese ever will. China is heading in the right direction at least.
Posted by svensson on 19 Sep 2009

History books tell me that Thames river and Greater London area was very polluted during the following years of the Industrial Revolution towards the end of WW2.Now London and Thames is not that dirty anymore.

In West Germany,the rapid reindustrialization process after Allied bombings of German cities creates acid rain that devastated a significant part of the Black Forest,thanks to the burning of coal by West German factories prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now? Germany is a strong advocate in developing green tech alongside Japan.

I give China thirty years to solve its longstanding environmental problem. China is different from Germany, Japan or UK.

It has a much greater population that need jobs for them to alleviate their dire economic conditions.China is vast and populous. Thus,it's not easy to choose between propagating
green tech while shutting polluting factories that hire millions of labourers. Massive unemployment will spell doom for China.

If anyone in this blog is given the position as the ruler of China,what would you do to clean up
China's environment yet at the same time sustaining the livelihood of millions that depend
upon mining coal and working in polluting factories for monthly wages?

Posted by Abel Lyold on 18 Dec 2009

I'm not sure we should give China any leeway. They mostly screwed up the Copenhagen Climate Change talks.

Posted by Freddie on 08 Jan 2010

I'm not sure we should give China any leeway. They mostly screwed up the Copenhagen Climate Change talks.

Nope, as usual it's the West and Western hypocrites/deceivers who:

1 - Caused 90% of the pollution in the first place
2 - Tried to humiliated China's PM and turn developing nations against each other
3 - Deflected blame at China when they are clearly at fault (for making ridiculous demands while being stingy as usual)

Posted by Truth Speaker on 13 May 2010

The problem with the China is that the government is more image-obsessed than
actually concerned about environmental problems. Just like the article points out, there
are tons of laws and policies being enacted to ameliorate environmental problems in China and
make the country more "green"... but none of these laws are enforced at the local level. Not to mention the fact that most people in China lack any sort of environmental awareness or personal responsibility to environmental problems. So the laws are there, but 99% of the 2 billion people do NOT follow them or understand why they are important to begin with. Also, some of the government's initiatives to make China more "green" are actually hurting the environment e.g. planting trees in the mongolian steppe and importing exotic grasses for touristy parts of cities.

Posted by Victoria Neff on 11 Aug 2010

Some of the China-bashing here is, at best, debatable, and I think flat-out misses the mark.

Take allegations that they have "stolen" alternative technology. How to build solar panels, make mirrors for concentrated solar power, etc. are hardly closely-guarded secrets. Like people everywhere, maybe they didn't invent something but do use it.

Further, consider the first artificially-powered vehicle: a steam-powered one designed for use on roads built by a man named Richard Trevithick in 1804. Can we say that we in the U.S., for instance, "stole" the idea? There's a story of an even earlier steam-driven "car" built by a Catholic priest from Belgium who was in -- ironically -- China, a vehicle supposedly built around 1678 for the Chinese Emperor Chien Lung. (This story may be apocryphal, however.) Electric cars? -- the first was built by a guy named Robert Anderson . . . of Scotland, sometime in the 1830's. First self-powered airplane? -- almost certainly one Clement Ader, in 1890 -- in France and yes, he was French. Croatian Nikola Tesla is credited by many for inventing the radio -- but after becoming an American citizen. Did Americans "steal" anything? I could go on, but I think the point is clear.

Also, while labor laws and worker protections in China fall far short of what we expect in the West, they are vastly better today than they were even just a generation ago -- when I first lived in China. There are still abuses, and much remains to be done; no argument. But the progress has been remarkable, whether it has been *because* of the government or *in spite* of it. When I first arrived in China in mid-1985, demonstrations or protests of *any* sort were utterly unthinkable, yet there are thousands every year today.

This article does offer a clear, concise picture of one of the many contradictions in China, and the twin efforts to expand green energy even while continuing to pollute terribly is one of the biggest of those contradictions. On the plus side, just last week the National People's Congress was considering legislation to lower taxes on vehicles with the smallest engines, maintaining them at current levels for mid-sized engines -- but increasing them on the largest ones.

China's leaders are riding a potentially dangerous dragon, and you can be sure they are well aware of that fact. People have the idea that it's a complete dictatorship today, but there's a an ancient Chinese saying that's very telling: "The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far, far away." In other words, there were times when even the "Son of Heaven" could be -- and was -- ignored. Eventually, the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution weren't ordered by Mao; the Red Guards he unleashed on the nation spiraled completely out of the control (requiring Mao to order in the military more than once). The saying above underlies much of the corruption in contemporary China, too.

Finally, the charge that they flood our markets with cheap products is, in many cases, simply untrue. Consider how many of our cell phones and computers are made, in whole or in part, in China. Apple's wildly popular iPhone is just one example, and I haven't heard many people call it a "cheap product," either in terms of quality or price. That's arguably against American interests, but that doesn't make them shoddy products.

And China is not without its own homegrown talent. China (and India) graduate far more many engineers and scientists every year than we do, for instance. Just a few hours ago I read in some article that last year alone, China graduated some *2,000* students in the highly specialized and esoteric discipline of plasma physics -- just that one sub-field. They're bringing online what will be the world's fastest supercomputer. They did use, for example, Intel chips -- but they're working at developing their own capabilities (something we need to pay very close attention to, by the way).

There's plenty for which China can be quite justifiably criticized, but some of the criticisms are simply over the top.

Posted by Mekhong Kurt on 01 Nov 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
christina larsonABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina Larson is a journalist focusing on international environmental issues, based in Beijing and Washington, D.C. Her reporting has brought her throughout China, as well Southeast Asia, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and Foreign Policy, where she is a contributing editor. She is a fellow at the New America Foundation. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, she has written from China about efforts to stop a massive government-sponsored water project and failed plans to build “eco-cities.”



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