I, and others on Cleantechnica, have written about the statistics of China’s clean energy growth, investments and clean energy plans a number of times on here, and just yesterday I wrote on the expansion of a Chinese wind energy company in the US. But what is it like to spend some time in China and witness the energy and political culture there compared to the US? How do individuals in that system view it and experience it?
I can’t personally talk about such things, but the excellent NYTimes columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote a piece getting into this matter a little bit. While he is not Chinese or working in this field, per say, he is a talented observer, thinker, and writer and has spent a bit of time inside the borders of this leading world power talking to those working in this field.
The piece — Aren’t We Clever? — does not get into the issue in great depth, but it provides a nice window into that other world.
I’m pulling out a few great parts of that and commenting on them, but feel free to read the full piece over at the NYTimes.
Writing from Tianjin, China, Friedman starts out like this:
What a contrast. In a year that’s on track to be our planet’s hottest on record, America turned “climate change” into a four-letter word that many U.S. politicians won’t even dare utter in public. If this were just some parlor game, it wouldn’t matter. But the totally bogus “discrediting” of climate science has had serious implications. For starters, it helped scuttle Senate passage of the energy-climate bill needed to scale U.S.-made clean technologies, leaving America at a distinct disadvantage in the next great global industry. And that brings me to the contrast: While American Republicans were turning climate change into a wedge issue, the Chinese Communists were turning it into a work issue.
I love that last sentence, a simple explanation of the greatly important difference between how the two countries are addressing this issue. And I’m all-too-familiar with the first part but happy he does such a good job of highlighting that for the millions and millions who aren’t.
While we struggle with the ABCs of climate change, China has long moved on from those and is creating clean energy on large scales. Friedman continues on…
“There is really no debate about climate change in China,” said Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China. “China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data.” The push for green in China, she added, “is a practical discussion on health and wealth. There is no need to emphasize future consequences when people already see, eat and breathe pollution every day.”
And because runaway pollution in China means wasted lives, air, water, ecosystems and money — and wasted money means fewer jobs and more political instability — China’s leaders would never go a year (like we will) without energy legislation mandating new ways to do more with less. It’s a three-for-one shot for them. By becoming more energy efficient per unit of G.D.P., China saves money, takes the lead in the next great global industry and earns credit with the world for mitigating climate change.
So while America’s Republicans turned “climate change” into a four-letter word — J-O-K-E — China’s Communists also turned it into a four-letter word — J-O-B-S.
“China is changing from the factory of the world to the clean-tech laboratory of the world,” said Liu. “It has the unique ability to pit low-cost capital with large-scale experiments to find models that work.” China has designated and invested in pilot cities for electric vehicles, smart grids, LED lighting, rural biomass and low-carbon communities. “They’re able to quickly throw spaghetti on the wall to see what clean-tech models stick, and then have the political will to scale them quickly across the country,” Liu added. “This allows China to create jobs and learn quickly.”
Friedman goes on to discuss the opportunity for partnership with China, based on its weaknesses and the US’ strengths, something that hopefully will not be diminished in the years to come due to slow federal action.
He also goes on to discuss the case of a Mr. Mike Biddle (winner of The Economist’s 2010 Innovation Award for energy/environment) and his company, MBA Polymers, “which has invented processes for separating plastic from piles of junked computers, appliances and cars and then recycling it into pellets to make new plastic using less than 10 percent of the energy required to make virgin plastic from crude oil.” Long-story-short, Biddle received seed money from the US government to get going, yet he only has a tiny headquarters in the US and all of his factories in countries where people recycle at much higher rates than in the US, providing him with the plastic “mines” he needs (i.e. Austria, Britain, and China).
While Biddle hired a lobbyist “to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to copy the recycling regulations of Europe, Japan and China in our energy bill,” in the end, we got no energy bill at all from the US Senate. And Friedman ends his post with this insightful line: “So we educated him, we paid for his tech breakthroughs — and now Chinese and European workers will harvest his fruit. Aren’t we clever?”
This was such a wonderful piece I had to share on here — from ignorance on climate change and science in US politics to the current, fast movement on clean energy in China to the economic and jobs implications of all of this, Friedman gives us a preview of what our history books may be teaching us in 30-50 years.
Photo Credit: Magalie L’Abbé via flickr
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