The Big Fat Asterisk On China's Clean-Energy Push

by Bradford Plumer | September 2, 2009

In the Boston Globe today, Christina Larson has a terrific piece looking at China's highly inconsistent brand of environmentalism. As you'd expect, the headlines these days don't tell the whole story. Yes, the country's taking serious and dramatic steps to promote wind power, kick-start its solar industry, and improve the energy efficiency of its factories and plants. Climate change really has become a pressing concern in Beijing. But, at the same time, there are all these other dire pollution problems that are getting short shrift.

To name a few examples: a polluting smelter in Shaanxi province resulted in 600 children sick with serious lead poisoning; more than 500 residents near a chemical factory in Hunan province are suffering from cadmium poisoning; tap water contaminated by raw sewage in Inner Mongolia sickened 4,000 people. The Beijing-based magazine Caijing recently reported on how chemical pollution has contaminated the soil and rivers throughout Hunan province.

Even as China is greening its power supply, its rivers are getting blacker, according to Jin Jiamin, founder of Global Environment Institute, a domestic Beijing-based NGO.

As Larson explains, there's a clear reason for this. The clean-energy efforts come from on high, are supported by the influential National Development and Reform Commission, and, at this point, mainly involve lavishing money on wind-turbine makers or photovoltaic manufacturers. The powerful provincial governments, which have a great deal of autonomy on these matters and tend to be obsessed with economic growth, are happy to play along. On the other hand, attempts to clamp down on fumes and discharges are more contentious, since they can cut into a factory's bottom line. What's more, local governments are now cracking down on the green groups working on local pollution issues—groups that were once allowed a smidgen of space to maneuver.

It's an informative piece, and also implicitly raises some uncomfortable questions about the future of China's efforts to ratchet down its greenhouse gases. Right now, Beijing's focusing on bankrolling new clean-energy technology. The popular stuff. But if, as is now being discussed, China's planning to have its emissions decline at a certain point, then it's going to have to slap a hard cap on carbon (or implement a carbon tax). And on the local level, those sorts of "punitive" pollution-control efforts seem to be a much thornier endeavor.

(Flickr photo credit: maskofchina)

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