Why smoggy skies over Beijing represent the worlds greatest environmental opportunity

The Atlantic Monthly’s James Fallows, now living in China, has written a glass-is-half-full [air-is-half-breathable?] article, “China’s Silver Lining.” While I think he is a bit soft on China from a climate perspective, I think it is well worth reading because Fallows is terrific and thorough writer. And you have to like any story on energy that begins with an entrepreneur promoting Recycled Energy.

Also, there is little doubt that given the decades-old refusal of US conservatives to support aggressive federal efforts to promote the US clean energy industry (see here), China is certainly poised to become the world leader in most clean technologies.

Here are some highlights, starting with the grim health statistics:

When the World Bank issued its draft report, “Cost of Pollution in China,” last summer, it said that China’s economic growth rate would be cut significantly — perhaps by half or more — if the government accounted realistically for what Pan Yue called the country’s “overdrafts” on resources. China’s announced growth rate has been 9 to 10 percent each year over the past two decades; the report said that environmental costs could represent between 2.9 and 5.8 percent, which would reduce China’s miraculous-seeming growth rate to sclerotic European levels. Estimating how many people were sick, dead, or deformed would of course be much more controversial.

According to widely reported leaks, the bank concluded that about 750,000 Chinese people die prematurely each year because of pollution. But the Chinese government requested that no total figure be included in an interim version of the report released last year, because it wanted to review the methodology behind the estimate. This move was blasted around the world as yet another sign of the government’s secrecy.

The odd part of the denunciation is that the report itself, which the Chinese government accepted, included every bit of shocking information except that final tally. There were calculations of childhood deaths from dysentery, lost “life-years” because of air pollution, increased hospitalization rates because of lung diseases and cancers, and other grim statistics, including the conclusion that air pollution in all its forms is probably 10 times more damaging to China’s health than all forms of water pollution. It is hard to imagine how anyone who opened the report could consider it a whitewash.

On the brighter side, in a 2007 visit to China, George David, the CEO of United Technologies Corporation, pointed out:

China’s economy consumes much more energy per unit of economic output than America’s — about four times as much, in fact — and that, he said, is good news. So is the fact that China’s homes, schools, and office buildings are so wasteful in the ways they use energy for heating and cooling. China’s traffic system suffers extreme congestion, which wastes more fuel. More good news! “The U.S. is tremendously inefficient, and China is worse,” David said. “That is what gives us the opportunity” — both commercial opportunity for companies like his and strategic opportunity for groups fighting climate change worldwide.

He went on to make a point that became obvious once explained: precisely because so much of the Chinese system is profligate and sloppy, the opportunity to improve efficiency, and cut back on pollution and energy use, is greater here than nearly anywhere else — and the savings can be achieved more cheaply. The energy wastefulness of China’s economy affects the entire world because of the greenhouse gases it generates. And so as the world looks for ways to cut those emissions, China offers fast, easy, and inexpensive opportunities for improvement. For businesses, this means a market for efficient engines, sewage-treatment plants, solar cells and similar “clean” energy sources, and other technologies that help control pollution. For those working to control greenhouse-gas emissions, it means a fast, cheap way to make a difference.

David gave this illustration: commercial and residential buildings are a deceptively important source of pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. Worldwide, the energy needed to heat, cool, and illuminate buildings, together with the energy costs of putting them up and maintaining them, accounts for nearly 40 percent of total energy demand — even more than the energy used by all forms of transportation. Chinese office buildings and apartments are leakier than those in developed countries. They require about twice as much fuel to heat and cool as those in similar climates in Europe or North America, because many were built in the days when insulation was one of many unaffordable luxuries. Therefore, in principle it’s cheap and easy to cut their power use: more insulation in existing buildings, higher standards for new ones.

Half full, half empty, 10% clean, 90% dirty — you decide.Related Posts: