Making China green
The world has a stake in the developing giant's balance of industry and environment
Denis Hayes; August 21, 2005
My first trip to China, in 1984, was to a repressive Third-World
country. Most of the people I encountered were terrified to talk with a
Westerner. Conversations without an official interpreter were furtive;
conversations with an interpreter were bland.
China's streets were filled not just with the famous throngs of
bicycles but with horse carts, occasional oxen and a few crude vehicles
with noisy, polluting, two-stroke engines. Most buildings were squat,
ugly, Soviet-style concrete blockhouses. Men and women alike wore
identical, threadbare blue Mao jackets.
Each of my subsequent four trips has been like a visit to yet another new country.
Napoleon, surveying a map in 1803, pointed to China and famously
remarked, "There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep. For when he
wakes he will move the world."
The giant is now fully awake. China has averaged 10 percent real
Gross Domestic Product growth per year for the past quarter-century.
With a GDP of $1.6 trillion, China is now the world's sixth largest
economy and its third most active trading nation.
Last year, China consumed half of the world's cement production,
40 percent of its coal, one-third of its steel, nearly one-fourth of
its copper and one-fifth of its aluminum.
Wealth and Poverty
With China's huge population, this wealth does not go as far as
in the United States. The average American earns 30 times as much as
the average Chinese.
But national averages are deceiving. In China's industrialized
east, and especially in its cosmopolitan cities, the visible wealth can
be disconcerting to anyone who still expects Mao jackets.
College-educated, urbane, sleek Shanghai women have embraced fashions
from Milan and cosmetics from Paris.
Urban bicycles no longer dominate the roads. Indeed, in downtown
areas of Beijing and Shanghai, they are becoming an endangered species.
Last year, China was the world's largest market for Audi A6s and
BMW 7 Series. China has 15,000 highway projects under way, enough road
to span the breadth of America 25 times.
Yet even as 26-year-old software entrepreneurs in Shanghai pay
cash for new Ferraris, hundreds of millions of peasants in Western
China burn dried dung for warmth inside windowless mud huts. The
cleavages between cities and the countryside, between owners and
workers, between the superbly educated and the illiterate are perhaps
the widest in the world. This is awkward, to say the least, in a nation
that still formally clings to communism as its official political
China's national leaders are acutely aware that historical
regime changes in China have usually grown out of peasant revolts. They
believe that their most important challenge is to distribute wealth to
the countryside without undermining the urban engines that produce the
Ten years ago, Chinese leaders popularized the slogan: "Development first. Environment later."
"Later" has arrived with a vengeance.
Despite tough new anti-pollution laws, savvy grass-roots
activists and hard-nosed regulators, China's power plants, refineries,
chemical factories and steel mills still spill countless tons of
poisons into the air and waterways.
According to the World Health Organization, 16 of the world's 20
most air-polluted cities are in China. Breathing the air in any major
Chinese city on a bad air day is like smoking three packs of
cigarettes. Respiratory illness is the No. 1 killer in China. Every
year, air pollution causes 400,000 premature deaths and 75 million
Every major waterway has stretches in which fish cannot be eaten
because they are too toxic. Skyrocketing demand for clean water is
drawing down aquifers faster than they can recharge. The spreading Gobi
Desert has already displaced 10 times as many farmers as were uprooted
in the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s.
Feeding the Dragon
Between 1990 and 2003, China's consumption of iron ore increased
tenfold; its consumption of aluminum increased sixfold; its use of
copper and industrial platinum increased 80-fold.
However, the real pinch point for China is energy. Energy use is
increasing 10 percent per year, and electricity production is growing
15 percent annually.
The country is adding a new 1,000-megawatt power plant every
week. Still, 24 provinces experienced severe power shortages last year.
The Three Gorges Dam -- the world's largest hydroelectric dam --
has displaced nearly 2 million people and will destroy a complex,
China uses twice as much coal as the United States does. Eighty
percent of China's electricity and two-third of all its energy come
from coal. This is a planetary problem because coal produces more
greenhouse gas than any other fuel.
Oil is another huge energy problem for China. Twelve years ago, China
was a net oil exporter. Today, it imports 45 percent of its oil and is
the second-largest oil consumer in the world, after the United States.
Ironically, China's largest energy opportunity is a legacy
of its former command-and-control economy. China uses nearly five times
as much energy per unit of GDP as the United States does, and almost 12
times as much as super-efficient Japan. Efficiency investments are
generally cheap and easy, and promising portents are emerging.
China's national leaders -- most of them trained as engineers --
strongly support efforts to improve efficiency. No top Chinese leader
would dismiss energy efficiency as merely "a sign of personal virtue"
of no relevance to national policy -- as did U.S. Vice President Dick
China's national energy efficiency improvement targets are four times as ambitious as those of the Bush administration.
China is implementing tough efficiency standards for appliances.
China's vehicle fuel efficiency standards are also stronger than
ours. Most new U.S.-style sports utility vehicles will be illegal in
China by 2008.
A new generation of Chinese leaders is also eager to leapfrog
past 20th century energy sources and move directly to decentralized,
China passed a national law calling for all utilities to obtain
at least 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 -- a
proposal that has been rejected repeatedly by our Congress, most
recently two weeks ago.
Strong, consistent policies to support wind energy development are
leading to skyrocketing growth in Mongolia and the western provinces.
European wind companies have thus far dominated sales, but aggressive new Chinese wind companies are entering the field.
China is responding to the energy challenge much as the United
States responded to sputnik. More than three times as many Chinese as
Americans will earn Ph.D.s in engineering and the sciences this year.
Bright young Chinese scientists who were sent abroad to study with the
world's leading researchers of solar electricity and biofuels are
returning home to build new industries.
This follows on China's decision a few years ago to get serious
about solar water heating. After less than 10 years of rapid growth,
China now accounts for more than half of all solar water heating in the
entire world. Moreover, China's solar collectors are cheaper yet more
sophisticated than most sold here.
China's decisions about energy are arguably the most important
environmental decisions being made anywhere in the world. Massive coal
consumption will affect not just air quality in Chinese cities, but
also the climate of the entire planet.
A large Chinese commitment to nuclear power could cause nuclear
to become the power source of choice in the developing world, which is
seeking to emulate China's economic miracle. The implications for
nuclear weapons proliferation would be almost too dreadful to
Last year, President Hu Jintao announced that China is entering
a new stage of development, which he termed "scientific development."
His much-reported talk placed great emphasis on the need for
environmental balance and social equity.
China and the rest of the world have a huge stake in his success.
Denis Hayes is president of The Bullitt Foundation.