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Can China Catch a Cool Breeze? | The Nation

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Can China Catch a Cool Breeze?

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PETER O. ZIERLEIN*

About the Author

Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

On a range of seaside mountains between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two visions of China's future development stand side by side. The slope of the mountains is busy with construction workers building roads and swank modern trophy homes, each with a two-car garage. The valley below is carpeted with acres of bright green chemical-fed golf courses, their sand traps winking up in playful floral patterns. This is the future as California-style, auto-based sprawl.

On the ridgeline above this stands the other vision: four tall wind turbines face the South China Sea, receiving the steady ocean breeze. The turbines of the Da Mei Sha wind farm are part of the country's rapidly rising renewable energy sector. This small wind farm represents an alternate future: that of China as a green technology giant.

The People's Republic of China faces two problems that could be addressed with one solution.

The global economic crisis has hit China hard. The country's exports and Gross Domestic Product growth have dropped dramatically; over the past year tens of thousands of factories have closed, and an estimated 20 million workers have lost their jobs. Social unrest is growing, and many fear it could spin out of control. In the face of that, China must boost its internal investment and consumption. In other words, China, which exports much of its savings, must absorb more of the surplus it generates--it must stimulate its own economy. The Chinese government's $585 billion stimulus package, announced in November and dedicated mostly to infrastructure, is an attempt to do just that. A second, equally massive intervention may be on the way soon.

At the same time, China faces an array of interconnected environmental crises. Foremost among them is air pollution caused by heavy use of coal. For the unconditioned foreigner (such as your reporter) who shows up in the leaden, acrid filth of an overcast day in Beijing or Chonqing, the physical effects can be immediate headaches, nausea and disorientation. Even much of rural China is choked by this poisonous, soot-laden air. Coal pollution is estimated to cost China at least 7 percent of its GDP annually in lost productivity. A recent Pew survey in China found that more than 70 percent of respondents said air quality was a serious problem; water quality is seen as equally dire.

Desertification and severe water shortages are beginning and will get worse as Himalayan glaciers disappear and rainfall is disrupted by climate change. Later this century, a rise in sea level is predicted to inundate many coastal cities and much of the country's industrial base.

The mountainside sprawl, repeated in variations all over China, might work to stimulate the economy. But environmentally it will bring disaster. On the other hand, retooling the energy system--à la the windmills--could solve both problems by radically reducing the country's carbon emissions while stimulating the economy.

It's not an overstatement to say that the fate of the world depends on which path China chooses. Emissions of atmospheric carbon dioxide have surged 370 percent in China since 1980; energy consumption has grown faster than the country's economy as a whole; China just surpassed the United States as the world's largest greenhouse gas polluter; and in twenty-five years it will emit more carbon dioxide than the rest of the industrialized world combined. If that happens, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will permanently overshoot the threshold of 350 parts per million, a level that climate scientists say we must return to if we are to avoid catastrophic, self-reinforcing, runaway climate change. (Current concentrations are 388 ppm.)

Not long ago, Chinese leaders refused to confront the environmental crisis, claiming that renewable energy was too expensive. They argued that because most accumulated atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions were produced by the industrialization of the United States and Europe, it is therefore unfair to expect China to sacrifice its economic growth to solve a problem created by others. This argument may be historically "correct," but it is also suicidal: runaway climate change will not exempt China or anyone else.

Recently, however, China has begun to embrace renewable energy. And it is clear that the economics of renewable energy make sense. Wind farms, in particular, involve considerable economic benefits like rapid growth, job creation, technological links to the rest of the economy and lots of profits. Solar, hydro and biomass are also being invested in, but wind power is the most robust of China's renewables.

"The wind sector in China is growing extremely fast," says Trevor Houser, an energy analyst and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "The challenge now is to devise policies that can keep this going for the long term."

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