By Julian Wong Apr.25.2009
In: policy, solar, uncategorized

China's Green Predicament: Glass Half Empty of Half Full?

When it comes to describing China’s energy and environmental situation, there is a need  for journalists, critics and observers to keep the big picture in mind and appreciate the contradictory and schizophrenic nature of Chinese policy making. Environmental impact assessments have been skirted, but a renewable energy stimulus package is on the cards.

A recent piece in the New York Times suggests that the economic slowdown is causing planners to favor of revenue-generating infrastructure and heavy industry projects that inevitably undercut environmental efforts that have been gaining momentum until recently.  The story’s position hinges largely on the recently adopted “green passage” policy that speeds up the approval of industrial projects in light of the urgent economic needs of the country.  Yes, folks, as CELB notes, that’s “green” for green light, not necessarily eco green.  The NYT articles explains:

The Ministry of Environmental Protection, citing the urgency of fighting the downturn, adopted a new “green passage” policy that speeds approval of industrial projects. In one three-day stretch late last year, it gave the green light to 93 new investment plans valued at $38 billion.

Provincial environmental agencies quickly followed suit, cutting the allotted time limit to review environmental impact assessments from the maximum 60 days to as few as five days in one province. Here in Hebei, the parched dust-bowl province that surrounds Beijing, officials announced approval of four new cement plants in a single day in January.

This is an unfortunate development.  As one observer says, “Instead of shying away from clean-energy stimulus projects as hurdles, we need to be looking toward them as linchpins of the solution.”  There’s more, however:

To free up stimulus money for other uses, the central government slashed the portion of the package earmarked for environmental projects, like water sanitation, to almost $31 billion from some $51 billion.

(See also a Switchboard post on the downsizing of the green portions of the stimulus.)  Not the kind of Earth Day (remember, every day is Earth Day) material you want to be reading.

But I urge context.  The NYT article fails to mention the progress that has been made on clean energy development in the years leading to this econonomic implosion.  If there’s one thing that China observers can agree upon, its that Chinese government policy is schizophrenic if nothing else.  While there is little to say in defense of the the “green passage” policy or the reported slashing of environmental stimulus spending, it is important to keep the eye on the big picture to appreciate what has also been accomplished outside of the stimulus package.

It is worth the reminder that China ranked only second to Germany as the largest public investor in cleantech in 2007, according to a much-circulated basis, and its domestic solar market will benefit from very recently announced solar subsidies for roof top solar applications (see previous post).

Followers of this blog will be familiar with programs like China’s national energy and water intensity targets and the Top-1000 Energy Consuming Enterprises program.

China is also making inroads into energy efficient vehicles The Energy Conservation and Alternative Energy Vehicle Significant Projects initiative, which is part of a 23 year old national “863″ program, was launched by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2007 to encourage electric vehicle R&D by universities, research institutes and companies. Lou Schwartz provides a glimpse of the role of this government-backed R&D initiative plays in helping China realize its aspirations to be a world beater in electric vehicles.

It has been correctly observed that the stimulus package, despite a lot of talk of its green dimensions, has so far contained no earmarks for renewable energy.  Bu that is set to change according to a report that a May announcement from the central government is expected to unleash significant spending on renewables.  According to (Chinese only), solar is particularly expected to receive a big boost in the May package, with speculation that a follow-up policy to the Solar Roofs Program called the “Golden Sun” (金太阳) policy to be released by the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Science & Technology.

This is not to say that China is the posterchild for green; it has a long way to go in terms of building institutional capacity, sound governance and transparency that is needed for substantial progress on the sustainability front.  While I empathize with first-hand China observers who lament that much recent attention on China’s greening efforts underemphasize the ecological damage that its industrial and construction activities wield, it is also fair to say that any news story that demonizes China’s environmental efforts without acknowledging the broader context of its significant achievements in starting to turn the ship towards a greener course misrepresents the true picture.  Having spoken on a daily basis to foreigners living outside China, it is clear that the level of awareness of China’s recent efforts in energy efficiency, renewable energy and environmental protection are largely non-existent, DESPITE the many specialized reports like those of the Climate Group that have been recently released.  It is the duty of the mainstream press to bring a balanced picture to the fore of the public imagination.  Bringing to light the true reality of the environment, even if they send inconsistent or contradictory messages, is a more constructive approach to working towards solutions and encouraging meaningful international collaboration.

As a final, albeit somewhat unrelated, word–consider this finding from a Gallop poll (see pg 2 of link):  The people of some first-world countries display a remarkable lack of understanding of climate change.  When asked if climate change is “a result of human activities”, only 44% of Singaporeans, 49% of Americans and 53% of Finns answered in the affirmative.  Mainland Chinese? 58%.

Incredible stuff. I guess there are different ways to measure progress.

Comments (3)

  1. Charlie Apr.25.2009@4:34 pm Reply

    Very sage advice Julian. China is neither all green nor all black, but a very nuanced shade of gray. Balanced stories take longer to write and do not lend themselves to punchy headlines. Some of those who paint China as an environmental cesspit, have a broader anti-China political agenda; some of those who paint China as a green Nirvana want to embarrass the US with its inaction or curry favor with China’s leadership. The real story is a complex one, but undeniably, in the long run, progress is being made (its perhaps not a leap forward so much as series of fits, starts, and occasional backsliding). In any event, thanks for setting the record straight.

  2. Edouard Stenger, France May.5.2009@6:26 pm Reply

    Another great article, many thanks Julian.

    To your question I would answer that the glass is filling up. For instance, yesterday China announced it TRIPLED its wind energy goal with no less than 100 GW by 2020.

    By the time we reach the Copenhagen meeting, more countries will have moved more forward and so will have China.

    Keep up the good work !

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