Pedestrians, cars and a bicycle make their way through thick pollution in Beijing. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
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 U.S. 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 lackluster 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 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The country also is striving to reduce energy intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percent 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 U.S. and putting Beijing “in the lead today.”
• This article was shared by our content partner Yale Environment 360, part of the Guardian Environment Network
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 percent 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 U.S., 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.”
Julian L. Wong, founder of the Beijing Energy Network and now a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, says that the outlook and reported figures so far look good. He points to government statistics indicating that energy consumption per unit of GDP dropped by 10 percent between 2006 and 2008. One reason for rapid progress, he explains, is that these key energy initiatives are backed by China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission, the ministry responsible for economic development.
“Using energy more efficiently makes good economic sense,” he says. And diversifying China’s energy portfolio also appeals to Beijing, which has been concerned with energy security since the 1980s.
Of course, there are some important caveats. In China, “alternative energy” includes both hydro and nuclear power, which are often not classified as such elsewhere. “Please remember, there are negative environmental consequences for dams and nuclear,” says Hu Kanping, editor of the Beijing-based Environmental Protection Journal. “I do not think those are really ‘clean’ energy sources.” This month China announced plans to increase nuclear energy capacity tenfold over the next decade.
While the installation of wind turbines has proceeded at a furious pace in China, not all of the newly installed capacity is actually available to consumers through the grid. “Renewable energy providers often can’t always get access to the market,” says Ray Cheung, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. “If you’re a solar or wind energy company in China and you can’t gain access to the grid, nobody’s going to buy your power.”
Forbes recently reported that as many as 30 percent of “wind power assets” are not adequately connected to the grid. The obstacles are in part technical (the existing grid has not been designed for the fluctuating energy production from wind power), and in part political (the powerful companies that control access to the grid often have cozy relationships with coal energy suppliers and can block green newcomers).
Finally, while progress is almost certainly being made on both alternative energy and energy efficiency in China, it’s worth noting that most data for quantifying that progress has been supplied by the government itself. For instance, the state-owned People’s Daily publishes the quarterly figures on energy efficiency that are in turn cited by both domestic and international press. “There’s still the question of how can we verify figures,” says Wong.
Overall, however, on these emerging fronts the trends seem positive. But on domestic environmental issues — those that impact the daily lives of the Chinese people — the picture is less rosy.
“Water quality is probably deteriorating,” says Jin Jiamin, of the Global Environmental Institute. “The reason is industrial pollution.” Indeed, the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s most recent annual report on the state of the environment acknowledges that cleanup efforts failed to make improvements in the water quality of China’s seven major rivers. Mortality from cancers linked with pollution — including stomach cancer and liver cancer — continues to rise, according to Ministry of Health statistics. Smog blankets large Chinese cities. The toxic industry of importing dangerous “e-waste” (used electronics and computer parts containing hazardous chemicals) continues to flourish in Guizhou, as documentary photographer Alex Hofford has demonstrated, despite laws in place to shut down the profitable trade.
The reality is that, even as investment to stimulate new green industries is thriving in China, enforcement of green regulations that may limit industrial and economic activity is not. As Charles McElwee, a Shanghai-based environmental lawyer, explains: “Most actions aimed at energy will have some impact on local environment, but China has not shown willingness to commit the same level of resources to enforce existing environmental laws, which would have the most immediate impact on citizens.”
And as The Washington Post has reported, tough economic times have brought even laxer environmental enforcement for factories in southern China. Peng Peng, research director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, a government-affiliated think tank, told the Post: “With the poor economic situation, officials are thinking twice about whether to close polluting factories, whether the benefits to the environment really outweigh the dangers to social stability.”
While China’s national priorities have shifted, its politics haven’t. When economic and environmental priorities align, astoundingly rapid transformation is possible. But when interests compete, the economy still trumps the environment.