This month, on the first anniversary of the opening of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Beijing’s skies were a hazy gray. Walking down the street, one was left with a tickle in the throat and burning eyes. A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, conducted jointly by Peking University and Oregon State University, found that Beijing’s $20 million investment to scrub the skies for the Olympics in fact had little impact on air quality. The US embassy in Beijing now maintains a Twitter feed posting data from an air-quality monitoring station on the embassy compound; readings of large particulates in the air in recent weeks have ranged from “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” to “hazardous”.
The experience of daily life in Beijing hardly gives the impression that the last year has been a watershed for the environment in China. 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?) It’s tempting to shrug and wonder whether the legacy of new green initiatives will be as lacklustre as the “green Olympics” - or to feel blue at the lack of promised “blue skies”.
Yet for an entirely different perspective on China’s recent environmental progress, take the ultra-modern bullet train a half-hour southwest of Beijing to the port city of Tianjin. In just a little over four years, a mix of government and foreign investment has transformed this mid-sized Chinese city into the global manufacturing hub of the world’s wind power industry. China’s installed wind capacity has doubled in each of the past four years. Many experts seem reasonably optimistic that China could meet its ambitious renewable energy plans to derive at least 15 per cent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The country also is striving to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 per cent over a five-year period.
These two targets represent some of the most ambitious green goals in the world, and are expected to make China - in just over a decade - the world’s largest producer and consumer of alternative energy.
China watchers worldwide have taken note. Earlier this month, a prominent American venture capitalist and the CEO of General Electric published a joint op-ed in The Washington Post, enthusing, “China’s commitment to developing clean energy technologies and markets is breathtaking” - even outpacing the US and putting Beijing “in the lead today”.
From the outside, China is seen as passing spectacular new renewable energy goals, building massive wind farms and hydropower stations overnight and perhaps one day even giving American and European companies a run for their money in the global green-tech market. But from the inside, what emerges is a more muddled picture. The daily experience is that the air and water quality is bad, in some places getting marginally better or staying the same, in some cases getting worse.
“How do you reconcile these different pictures of China?” asks Barbara Finamore, founder and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s China Program. “Both are true at once. It’s something we struggle with all the time.”
Indeed, China may soon be simultaneously the greenest and the blackest place on earth. The country is poised to be at once the world’s leader in alternative energy - and its leading emitter of C02. Alternative energy as a percentage of the total energy mix is increasing, but it will complement - not replace - growth in coal power. In fact, in a decade coal is expected to supply about 70 per cent of China’s energy. Because of the sheer scale, diversity, and complexity of China, it is possible for the country to take some great green leaps forward, in particular progress toward its alternative energy and energy efficiency targets, while at the same time having its rivers remain black and its air quality a health hazard.
To some extent this varied picture is to be expected. As Deborah Seligsohn, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute’s China Program, explains: “I think the government is trying very hard, and they’re a developing country with huge challenges - different things will move forward at different speeds.”
But there may also be another pattern at work. As Beijing-based political commentator Zhao Jing - who writes in the English-language press under the name of Michael Anti - puts it: “There are really two sets of ‘green’ issues in China, the global and the domestic - those where economic interests align with green targets, and those where they don’t.” In his estimation, China has made striking progress on the former set of issues, and rather less on the second.
For example, China has made impressive gains in quickly developing its alternative energy industry, in part because large new investments benefit everyone - from wind turbine manufacturers to local governments (which gain tax revenue from new industry) to future consumers. Yet, on domestic air and water pollution - where what is needed is stricter regulatory enforcement, potentially limiting industry - Chinese environmental groups believe the picture may be getting worse. And the environmental lawyers and advocates who would bring these issues to the attention of authorities are facing tougher crackdowns than ever.
At the same time, China is pouring billions of dollars into alternative energy - a commitment that, when taken as a percentage of GDP, is 10 times that of the United States. “China’s biggest green achievement has been to develop alternative energy,” says Jin Jiamin, founder and executive director of Global Environmental Institute, a Chinese NGO based in Beijing. “In the US, it takes time for ideas to become reality. But in China, it’s different. It’s easy for any new policies to be implemented quickly.”