Monday, November 16, 2009

Energy and the Environment in China

Foreign Policy has published a useful overview of China's environmental problems and progress:
Bottom line: China might be taking great green steps forward, but it is starting from many steps back. In a reverse of Western environmental history, China is focusing on energy before pollution, adopting some of the globe's most ambitious targets: to derive at least 15 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2020 and to reduce energy-intensity per unit of GDP by 20 percent over a five-year period. Implementing these energy targets will serve Beijing's twin purposes of increasing energy security and stimulating local economic activity. But these measures still won't leave China greener than countries in the West -- particularly since it still has a tremendous and expensive pollution problem to face at some point in the future.
But isn't China leaping ahead of the U.S. in solar and wind technology?
What's more, just because China is manufacturing green technologies doesn't mean it's using them. Indeed, China exports 90 percent of the solar panels it manufactures.
The results of this headlong rush into renewable energy shows the limitations of China's top-down planning:
Beneath the striking headline numbers, officials are working out serious kinks. For instance, the lure of striking gold by manufacturing green has turned the heads of mayors across China. Now, the State Council is trying to rein in an overheating solar sector by ordering plant closures. And though China is building wind farms, 20 percent of installed capacity is not connected to the grid yet -- due to technological gaffes and politicking as various established energy suppliers attempt to block new rivals.
The problem of population growth and urbanization will make it difficult for China to reduce energy demand in absolute terms:
With 350 million people -- more than the total population of the United States -- expected to move from China's countryside to its fast-growing cities over the next 20 years, energy demand and carbon emissions will almost inevitably soar, possibly even doubling. But while China cannot decrease its emissions, it can bend the growth curve down more than any other country.


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