Is China, Once Climate Scapegoat, Now Our "Sputnik"?

Not two years ago China was often decried as the world's environmental waste land.

Suddenly however it's "the Sputnik of our day," as Tom Friedman wrote last week in one of two buzz-wordy columns praising green efforts in China that could put the rest of the world to shame. "We ignore it at our peril." That's a message we've heard here a couple months ago, and have been hearing a lot lately.

True, China is very serious about green tech. But having just returned to Beijing, I read Friedman's column and can't help but think of that old Chinese phrase: "paper tiger."A Green Powered Superpower
As its big 60th birthday bash reminded us last week, China is the world's biggest developing country superpower. And while the U.S. hems and haws on its climate bill and stalls the construction of clean energy installations, Friedman and the New York Times have been telling us, it's a superpower being built increasingly on green technology (look for the high-speed train in the top graphic in that last link).

Yep: China is racing towards environmental protection and green technology at breakneck speed. Provisions for environmental protection and renewable energy in China's stimulus package bested much of the rest of the world, a few reports have said. The past year saw the shutting of thousands of the country's smallest and dirtiest coal plants. To reach its stunning "20 percent renewable energy by 2020" goal -- and many expect it to -- the country wants to be the world leader in electric hybrid cars, is said to be ready to get all its power from wind by 2020, and is already on track to be the largest wind power manufacturer by the end of the year. Even amidst fears that it's being protectionist, Arizona-based First Solar is building the world's largest solar array in China.

And then there's the view on the ground.

China's Development Still Soot-Stained
China's "green stimulus" has been greatly exaggerated, and the economic and social strain of the recession has put more pressure on local governments to cut corners -- that is, keep polluting factories going.

Of course, those factories still rely heavily on coal, which last year cost the country $13 billion in health and clean-up costs, and which is on track to soon make up 70 percent of the country's energy portfolio. Water quality is likely deteriorating, mortality from cancers linked with pollution is rising (says the Ministry of Health), toxic "e-waste" imports continue, and much renewable energy isn't adequately connected to the grid (reports Forbes). Meanwhile, the legal structure needed to enforce environmental protection laws remains weak, despite some of Beijing's best efforts.

Friends have told me unanimously that this has been a terrible year for air pollution in Beijing. Cars are still hitting the streets of the city at the rate of over 1,000 a day. As Christina Larson wrote at Yale Environment 360, "Being in the capital, one can't help but feel a little quizzical glancing at recent headlines from newspapers in Washington, New York, and London announcing China's green-tech revolution. (This is what an eco-friendly revolution feels like?)"

And as always, amidst a continuing environment of information control, the statistics we rely on to measure China's greening still come mainly from the not-so-trustworthy government itself.

Friedman acknowledges the darker reality, but only in one sentence at the bottom of his otherwise breathless op-ed: "China will continue to grow with cheap, dirty coal, to arrest over-eager environmentalists and to strip African forests for wood and minerals."

Friedman's Not Completely Wrong But He's Not Right
On the other counts, he's not wrong: China's embarking on a path toward clean power deployment and innovation. But his and others' new-found sanguine insistence that China is going green needs to be taken with a heavy grain of MSG. That idea risks taking certain crucial pressure off China when it comes to environmental improvements. And the notion that China is some kind of Sputnik for the U.S. -- with all the fearful symbolism that implies -- comes with a host of other problems, which I'll write about soon.

The truth about the environment, as with everything in China, is somewhere in the middle. China's greener than you think -- and not as green too. Friedman may not be exercising subtlety, but for the benefit of China, the U.S. and the world's climate, the rest of us need to be.

Also on TreeHugger
Sputnik's Lesson: Why the U.S. Can't Afford To Sit Out The Green Technology Revolution
China's Suntech to Build Solar Panels in the US
How Fair Is Reporting on China's Environment

Tags: Beijing | China

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