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 ideology.
  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 wealth.

China's Environment
  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 asthma attacks.
  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, ancient ecosystem.
  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 Cheney.
  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, renewable sources.
  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 contemplate.
  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.