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 China. In 1995, its founder Lester Brown's landmark book Who Will Feed China alerted leaders to a food crisis in the making. Today, Worldwatch is behind one of the best English-language resources on China's environmental situation at its China Watch website. Treehugger caught up with the organization's president, Christopher Flavin, during a recent trip to Beijing to help release the Chinese version of the group's State of the World report, titled "Our Urban Future." He spoke to me about how to look at a country rumored to be building 400 new cities per year, the role that the government is playing, and how China could beat the world in renewable energy.

TH: Clearly, China has some serious environmental problems. Does it deserve the horrible reputation it has?

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 China, there are two pictures in your head that you have to hold: first, that it's this huge CO2 producer, with the most horrendous environmental problems in the world: air pollution, water pollution, the drying out of large parts of the country; the contamination of food. It is in many ways as bad a situation as it is perceived to be.

But the story that is not well understood but is equally consequential is that China is responding to these problems rapidly. The same ingenuity and efficiency that has led to coal fired power plants being built at 2 to 3 times the rate as any other county in history — we have a lot of coal in the U.S., but it has built up over a long period of time -- you can see many instances in which this ingenuity is applied to environmental improvement. In terms of the industrial/technological mix and the policies in place -- there are areas in which you can matter-of-factly say that China is well ahead of the US.

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 U.S., penetration [of compact florescent lightbulbs (CFLs)] is fairly minor, about 10 to 20 percent in the US. Suddenly everyone's getting all excited: Wal Mart is promoting CFLs; Australia is making them mandatory. In China, most of that was done a decade ago.

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 China so far ahead? The answer is there's been a lot of concerted government effort. And there are many companies that make these bulbs. China totally dominates the industry. The last time I went into a hardware store in D.C., all the bulbs were made in China. It's not just the industry; the government helped lead and organize [this effort].

It has high car [fuel-efficiency] standards. As far as solar hot water, China has 75 percent of the world market. The solar electric and wind electric industries are absolutely taking off. We're on track for China to be the leading dominant global player in renewable tech in less than 5 years, especially in the solar electric and solar PV (photovoltaic) industry.

Consider that the U.S. developed these technologies for space and telecom applications in the 1980s, and that led to the early '90s when we lost our lead to Japan. Then Japan lost its lead to Germany. China just went from not even being visible on the radar screen to being in the no. 3 position.

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 China prices and make them the mainstream of the power business.

At a renewables event in 2004, in Bonn, Germany, the Chinese put on a big show of announcing some new goals. The national renewable energy law arrived 12 months later, and it went into force in January 2006. Now, there they are, right there in the middle of the pack, in the photovoltaics business. What they're producing looks almost exactly like what they're producing in Japan and Germany. It's leading technology. You're really going to see China blow the socks off the energy industry; not just in terms of renewables but in their ability to cut down prices. You're going to see incredible advances.

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 US. I'd say the next ten years in China.

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 China. Starting with nothing, he's been able to attract both Chinese capital and Western capital, and he's attracted enormous amounts of scientific talent.

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 North America. They do things when there is clearly a strong economic interest against it. Our policy in the US has been stalled by industrial interests, coal, oil, power industry. But in China, the government doing something perceived to be in the public interest can move forward quite rapidly.

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 China's environment now?

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. China was on the verge of becoming a food importer. But we were instrumental in changing agricultural policy, and that gave us a platform to work with.

The Blue Moon Fund in Virginia contributes funds, and we are actively involved in publishing State of the World in Chinese—but not always legally. It's been three years that we've worked with a regular commercial publisher. We also have a Chinese language website, with material available in Chinese to a much wider variety of folks.

China is so open and interested. What we're trying to do is provide a view of the landscape of environmental issues. There's a global basis throughout the world. We've got assessments of the severity of problems, but more importantly there are solutions being developed: cities attempting to improve sustainability, transportation, locally grown energy systems, locally grown food.

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 China? And what do you hope China's leaders might learn from your latest State of the World report?

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 China: walkable cities, good urban transportation and much higher quality of buildings.

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 China right now?

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.

Tags: Beijing | China | TH Interview

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