Whenit comes to describing China’s energy and environmental situation,there is a need for journalists, critics and observers to keep the bigpicture in mind and appreciate the contradictory and schizophrenicnature of Chinese policy making. Environmental impact assessments havebeen skirted, but a renewable energy stimulus package is on the cards.
A recent piece in the New York Timessuggests that the economic slowdown is causing planners to favor ofrevenue-generating infrastructure and heavy industry projects thatinevitably undercut environmental efforts that have been gainingmomentum until recently. The story’s position hinges largely on therecently adopted “green passage” policy that speeds up the approval ofindustrial projects in light of the urgent economic needs of thecountry. Yes, folks, as CELB notes, that’s “green” for green light, not necessarily eco green. The NYT articles explains:
The Ministry of Environmental Protection, citing theurgency of fighting the downturn, adopted a new “green passage” policythat speeds approval of industrial projects. In one three-day stretchlate last year, it gave the green light to 93 new investment plansvalued at $38 billion.
Provincial environmental agencies quickly followed suit, cutting theallotted time limit to review environmental impact assessments from themaximum 60 days to as few as five days in one province. Here in Hebei,the parched dust-bowl province that surrounds Beijing, officialsannounced approval of four new cement plants in a single day in January.
This is an unfortunate development. As one observer says, “Insteadof shying away from clean-energy stimulus projects as hurdles, we needto be looking toward them as linchpins of the solution.” There’s more,however:
To free up stimulus money for other uses, the centralgovernment slashed the portion of the package earmarked forenvironmental projects, like water sanitation, to almost $31 billionfrom some $51 billion.
(See also a Switchboard poston the downsizing of the green portions of the stimulus.) Not the kindof Earth Day (remember, every day is Earth Day) material you want to bereading.
But I urge context. The NYT article fails to mention theprogress that has been made on clean energy development in the yearsleading to this econonomic implosion. If there’s one thing that Chinaobservers can agree upon, its that Chinese government policy isschizophrenic if nothing else. While there is little to say in defenseof the the “green passage” policy or the reported slashing ofenvironmental stimulus spending, it is important to keep the eye on thebig picture to appreciate what has also been accomplished outside ofthe stimulus package.
It is worth the reminder that China ranked only second to Germany asthe largest public investor in cleantech in 2007, according to amuch-circulated 2008 reportby the Climate Group (a must-read for green China skeptics). It hasthe largest fleet of hydropower (not all completely eco-friendly,admittedly), and last year, it leap-frogged India to claim fourth spotglobally in terms of total installed wind power capacity. It is amongthe top three solar cell manufacturers on an annual basis, and itsdomestic solar market will benefit from very recently announced solarsubsidies for roof top solar applications (see previous post).
China is also making inroads into energy efficient vehicles TheEnergy Conservation and Alternative Energy Vehicle Significant Projectsinitiative, which is part of a 23 year old national “863? program, waslaunched by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2007 to encourageelectric vehicle R&D by universities, research institutes andcompanies. Lou Schwartz provides a glimpse of the role of this government-backed R&D initiative plays in helping China realize its aspirations to be a world beater in electric vehicles.
It has been correctly observedthat the stimulus package, despite a lot of talk of its greendimensions, has so far contained no earmarks for renewable energy. Buthat is set to change according to a report that a May announcementfrom the central government is expected to unleash significant spendingon renewables. According to nengyuan.net(Chinese only), solar is particularly expected to receive a big boostin the May package, with speculation that a follow-up policy to theSolar Roofs Program called the “Golden Sun” (???) policy to be released by the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Science & Technology.
This is not to say that China is the posterchild for green; it has along way to go in terms of building institutional capacity, soundgovernance and transparency that is needed for substantial progress onthe sustainability front. While I empathize with first-hand Chinaobservers who lament that much recent attention on China’s greeningefforts underemphasize the ecological damage that its industrial andconstruction activities wield, it is also fair to say that any newsstory that demonizes China’s environmental efforts withoutacknowledging the broader context of its significant achievements instarting to turn the ship towards a greener course misrepresents thetrue picture. Having spoken on a daily basis to foreigners livingoutside China, it is clear that the level of awareness of China’srecent efforts in energy efficiency, renewable energy and environmentalprotection are largely non-existent, DESPITE the many specializedreports like those of the Climate Group that have been recentlyreleased. It is the duty of the mainstream press to bring a balancedpicture to the fore of the public imagination. Bringing to light thetrue reality of the environment, even if they send inconsistent orcontradictory messages, is a more constructive approach to workingtowards solutions and encouraging meaningful internationalcollaboration.
As a final, albeit somewhat unrelated, word–consider this finding from a Gallop poll(see pg 2 of link): The people of some first-world countries display aremarkable lack of understanding of climate change. When asked ifclimate change is “a result of human activities”, only 44% ofSingaporeans, 49% of Americans and 53% of Finns answered in theaffirmative. Mainland Chinese? 58%.
Incredible stuff. I guess there are different ways to measure progress.