The TH Interview: Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch President, Talks About China
The Worldwatch Institute has played a major role in shaping the conversation about the environment around the world and especially in the role that the government is playing, and how China could beat the world in renewable energy.
the role that the government is playing, and how China could beat the world in renewable energy.
Christopher: When I lecture in the U.S., one of the first questions that comes up is how is it worthwhile for us to reduce carbon given the growth happening in China. Is it worth it for us to do anything? It's a concern that's promoted to some degree by industries and government officials.
When I look at
But the story that is not well understood but is equally consequential is that
For instance, you have a hard time in this country finding an incandescent light bulb. They're very clever, they've got ways of fitting florescent bulbs into almost anything. In the
Here's a quick back-of-the-envelope mental calculation: a billion CFLs—and that's a conservative number. Multiply that by 50 watts of savings—that's 50,000 megawatts. That's a significant amount of pollution being avoided. Why is
It has high car [fuel-efficiency] standards. As far as solar hot water,
Consider that the
TH: But isn't it not just a question of who will make, but who will buy, these technologies? Where does the Chinese consumer fit in?
Christopher: They [renewable, sustainable energy technologies] are too expensive now to make it in the Chinese market. But you can be sure they're going to drive them to
At a renewables event in 2004, in
Coal plants here cost a third to make than they do in the West. If they can do that for a coal plant, which is basically a 100-year-old technology, is there not a reason to think theyr'e going to do that with solar and wind? With coal you have to buy the coal; with renewables, its mostly an upfront capital cost. If you dramatically drive down the cost, you totally change the economics of the energy industry.
TH: How long do you expect that change to take?
Christopher: It's a big problem. I wish we had 20 years but we don't. I think we should start [developing renewables] right away in the
The private stuff will largely take care of itself; there has been a tremendous reaction to hugely successful IPOs in the solar sector. For instance, Suntech's Shi Zhengrong is one of the richest men in
But as far as government initiative goes, renewables need active engagement.
That's the other piece of the "glass is half-full" aspect: the government has a much better ability to get things done in this sphere than we have in
The trick is in implementation and enforcement. There are plenty of examples of [the policies] not being enforced. But also, the renewable energy law is right on track. The laws are not perfect, but it's a little hard to fault them given the speed of the industries taking off. There are environment taxes, charges, emissions trading systems.
TH: What are the biggest challenges — and possibilities — for
Christopher: What one hears from officials is there's just a great demand for increased energy services, and a desire to increase human wellbeing that's driving the electricity system of coal. At the same time you can clearly see in the public great concern for environmental problems. Particularly you see cities advertised as green cities, government officials at all levels making all kinds of announcements, government opinion, and a tremendous interest by young people in the environment.
You have both things going on at once: real citizen constituency for cleaning up the environment, while the government leadership does not want to be known as having a poor environmental record. At a meeting at Harvard, I heard a Chinese with close connections saying that president Hu will be judged to some extent on whether he can turn the corner on the environment. The previous leadership was measured by growth.
Environmental improvement is seen very much as being in the public interest. It's a top-down system here but it's also clear that the leadership is responding to not only the analytical work that suggests there are environmental problems, but also the perceived demand on part of the public.
TH: NGOs, especially foreign ones, seem to be impacting policy and dialogue in China more than ever. What role do you see Worldwatch playing in China now and how receptive is your audience here?
Christopher: For one, we're bringing together Chinese journalists and others, and asking 'what are the important stories?' (See the China Watch site.) And we're very pleased with [our work here] so far. We have had contact with the top leadership, for instance, and helped in changing the food balance [with Lester Brown's Who Will Feed China]. The official projections were off-base.
The Blue Moon Fund in
The Chinese think about how what they are doing fits what they're doing in the global context. That's very, very important to the extent to which they are able to attract international interest and financial support to do things in a better way;
TH:How do you see the development of cities—said to be around 20 new ones per year—impacting environmental progress in
Christopher: Clearly the government is tending to increase the quantity of national resources utilized, and they're building more sustainable cities. That's an absolute priority. There are some key early choices, like transportation systems and quality for buildings.
On the one hand, you can argue that many of the environmental problems are direct consequences of urban development. I don't think anyone will argue for reversing economic growth. But perhaps slowing it a bit. And ensuring a strong infrastructure. It's the European model, not the American model that is not going to work in
Just look at the level of traffic and air pollution with the relatively low number of cars. It's hard to imagine traffic will still be able to move about in 14 years time. It's hard to imagine it would work. It's encouraging to see a major effort to develop urban mass transit and high speed rail. But it's too bad that didn't happen earlier.
TH: How positive are you about
Christopher: I don't want to be optimistic or pessimistic. But at the pace of urban development existing currently, it's clear that environmental problems will continue for some time to come.