This month, on the first anniversary of the opening of the 2008 SummerOlympic Games, Beijing’s skies were a hazy gray. Walking down thestreet, one was left with a tickle in the throat and burning eyes. Arecent 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 theOlympics in fact had little impact on air quality. The U.S. embassy inBeijing now maintains a Twitter feed posting data from an air-qualitymonitoring station on the embassy compound; readings of largeparticulates 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 impressionthat the last year has been a watershed for the environment in China.Being in the capital, one can’t help but feel a little quizzicalglancing at recent headlines from newspapers in Washington, New York,and London announcing China’s green-tech revolution. (This is what aneco-friendly revolution feels like?) It’s tempting to shrug and wonderwhether the legacy of new green initiatives will be as lackluster asthe “green Olympics” – or to feel blue at the lack of promised “blueskies.”
Yet for an entirely different perspective on China’s recentenvironmental progress, take the ultra-modern bullet train a half-hoursouthwest of Beijing to the port city of Tianjin. In just a little overfour years, a mix of government and foreign investment has transformedthis mid-sized
Chinese city into the global manufacturing hub of the world’s windpower industry. China’s installed wind capacity has doubled in each ofthe past four years. Many experts seem reasonably optimistic that Chinacould meet its ambitious renewable energy plans to derive at least 15percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The country alsois striving to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percentover a five-year period.
These two targets represent some of the most ambitious green goals inthe world, and are expected to make China — in just over a decade — theworld’s largest producer and consumer of alternative energy.
China watchers worldwide have taken note. Earlier this month, aprominent American venture capitalist and the CEO of General Electricpublished a joint op-ed in The Washington Post,enthusing, “China’s commitment to developing clean energy technologiesand markets is breathtaking” — even outpacing the U.S. and puttingBeijing “in the lead today.”
From the outside, China is seen as passing spectacular new renewableenergy goals, building massive wind farms and hydropower stationsovernight and perhaps one day even giving American and Europeancompanies a run for their money in the global green-tech market. Butfrom the inside, what emerges is a more muddled picture. The dailyexperience is that the air and water quality is bad, in some placesgetting marginally better or staying the same, in some cases gettingworse.
“How do you reconcile these different pictures of China?” asks BarbaraFinamore, founder and director of the Natural Resources DefenseCouncil’s China Program. “Both are true at once. It’s something westruggle with all the time.”
Indeed, China may soon be simultaneously the greenest and the blackestplace on earth. The country is poised to be at once the world’s leaderin alternative energy — and its leading emitter of C02. Alternativeenergy as a percentage of the total energy mix is increasing, but itwill complement —not replace — growth in coal power. In fact, in a decade coal isexpected to supply about 70 percent of China’s energy. Because of thesheer scale, diversity, and complexity of China, it is possible for thecountry to take some great green leaps forward, in particular progresstoward its alternative energy and energy efficiency targets, while atthe same time having its rivers remain black and its air quality ahealth hazard.
To some extent this varied picture is to be expected. As DeborahSeligsohn, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s ChinaProgram, explains: “I think the government is trying very hard, andthey’re a developing country with huge challenges — different thingswill move forward at different speeds.”
But there may also be another pattern at work. As Beijing-basedpolitical commentator Zhao Jing — who writes in the English-languagepress under the name of Michael Anti — puts it: “There are really twosets of ‘green’ issues in China, the global and the domestic — thosewhere economic interests align with green targets, and those where theydon’t.” In his estimation, China has made striking progress on theformer set of issues, and rather less on the second.
For example, China has made impressive gains in quickly developing itsalternative energy industry, in part because large new investmentsbenefit everyone — from wind turbine manufacturers to local governments(which gain tax revenue from new industry) to future consumers. Yet, ondomestic air and water pollution — where what is needed is stricterregulatory enforcement, potentially limiting industry — Chineseenvironmental groups believe the picture may be getting worse. And theenvironmental lawyers and advocates who would bring these issues to theattention of authorities are facing tougher crackdowns than ever.
At the same time, China is pouring billions of dollars into alternativeenergy — a commitment that, when taken as a percentage of GDP, is 10times that of the United States. “China’s biggest green achievement hasbeen to develop alternative energy,” says Jin Jiamin, founder andexecutive director of Global Environmental Institute, a Chinese NGObased in Beijing. “In the U.S., it takes time for ideas to becomereality. But in China, it’s different. It’s easy for any new policiesto be implemented quickly.”
Julian L. Wong, founder of the BeijingEnergy Network and now a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center forAmerican Progress, says that the outlook and reported figures so farlook good. He points to government statistics indicating that energyconsumption per unit of GDP dropped by 10 percent between 2006 and2008. One reason for rapid progress, he explains, is that these keyenergy initiatives are backed by China’s powerful National Developmentand Reform Commission, the ministry responsible for economicdevelopment.
“Using energy more efficiently makes good economic sense,” he says. Anddiversifying China’s energy portfolio also appeals to Beijing, whichhas been concerned with energy security since the 1980s.
Of course, there are some important caveats. In China, “alternativeenergy” includes both hydro and nuclear power, which are often notclassified 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 monthChina announced plans to increase nuclear energy capacity tenfold overthe next decade.
While the installation of wind turbines has proceeded at a furious pacein China, not all of the newly installed capacity is actually availableto consumers through the grid. “Renewable energy providers often can’talways get access to the market,” says Ray Cheung, a senior associateat the World Resources Institute. “If you’re a solar or wind energycompany in China and you can’t gain access to the grid, nobody’s goingto buy your power.”
Forbes recently reported that as many as 30 percent of “windpower assets” are not adequately connected to the grid. The obstaclesare in part technical (the existing grid has not been designed for thefluctuating energy production from wind power), and in part political(the powerful companies that control access to the grid often have cozyrelationships with coal energy suppliers and can block green newcomers).
Finally, while progress is almost certainly being made on bothalternative energy and energy efficiency in China, it’s worth notingthat most data for quantifying that progress has been supplied by thegovernment itself. For instance, the state-owned People’s Dailypublishes the quarterly figures on energy efficiency that are in turncited by both domestic and international press. “There’s still thequestion 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 dailylives of the Chinese people — the picture is less rosy.
“Water quality is probably deteriorating,” says Jin Jiamin, of theGlobal Environmental Institute. “The reason is industrial pollution.”Indeed, the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s most recent annualreport on the state of the environment acknowledges that cleanupefforts failed to makeimprovements in the water quality of China’s seven major rivers.Mortality from cancers linked with pollution — including stomach cancerand liver cancer — continues to rise, according to Ministry of Healthstatistics. Smog blankets large Chinese cities. The toxic industry ofimporting dangerous “e-waste” (used electronics and computer partscontaining hazardous chemicals) continues to flourish in Guizhou, 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 greenindustries is thriving in China, enforcement of green regulations thatmay limit industrial and economic activity is not. As Charles McElwee,a Shanghai-based environmental lawyer, explains: “Most actions aimed atenergy will have some impact on local environment, but China has notshown willingness to commit the same level of resources to enforceexisting environmental laws, which would have the most immediate impacton citizens.”
And as The Washington Posthas reported, tough economic times have brought even laxerenvironmental enforcement for factories in southern China. Peng Peng,research director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, agovernment-affiliated think tank, told the Post: “With thepoor economic situation, officials are thinking twice about whether toclose polluting factories, whether the benefits to the environmentreally outweigh the dangers to social stability.”
While China’s national priorities have shifted, its politics haven’t.When economic and environmental priorities align, astoundingly rapidtransformation is possible. But when interests compete, the economystill trumps the environment
Christina Larson is a journalist focusing on internationalenvironmental issues, based in Beijing and Washington, D.C. Herreporting has brought her throughout China, as well Southeast Asia, andher 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.”