Why Greening China is a National Priority

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It’s a 14-hour flight from New York City to Beijing. But despite the distance, the similarities between the two cities are indubitable.

Just like New York, Beijing is a thriving mega world of jam-packed architectural wonders, raw talent, cut-throat business and a resilience to overcome its own marked recession.

NRDC was the first international environmental organization to establish clean energy and green building programs in China. Photo: Flickr/coifmo66

But Beijing is an oxymoron. It’s the capitol city of the world’s No. 1 energy consumer and the world leader in clean energy, making it both a model and a learning experience for the United States’ own green endeavors.

More than 15 years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) took on accelerating the greening of China as one of its top six priorities.

Alex Wang, senior attorney; director for the China Environmental Law Project, tells us why the world’s two most energy-intensive countries should take lessons from and make investments in each other.

EARTH911: One of the NRDC’s overarching goals is the greening of China. How influential is China on the United States’ own environmental progression?

ALEX WANG: China and the U.S. can learn a great deal from each other. The U.S. has, over the past 40 years, been able to reduce emissions of key pollutants by more than 50 percent, while growing GDP by nearly 200 percent. China is very interested in how the U.S. achieved this.

China now is accelerating its investments in energy efficiency and clean energy technologies at an unprecedented pace. Clean energy technology is a critical area for U.S.-China collaboration and this work is beginning. But this work needs to be ramped up significantly.

E911: China has surpassed the U.S. in clean energy investments, even with that promised funding, why is it important that we get involved?

AW: It is imperative that the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters, work together to tackle the challenge of climate change. An important component of this will be joint collaboration on key clean energy technologies.

The U.S. and China can share information, financing and expertise in a variety of areas to accelerate the development of these technologies. And the U.S. and China are already doing this.

When President Obama went to China at the end of 2009, the two countries signed a series of cooperation agreements on electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy efficiency and other key issues.

E911: Other than more governmental attention to clean energy and global warming, what can the U.S. do to become a “powerhouse” for environmental progress?

AW: We need to wake up to the reality that clean energy will be one of the key drivers of economic prosperity in the future. Other countries are beginning to accelerate their efforts on developing clean energy industries, and if the U.S. does not take this seriously we will lose out.

E911: How much of an impact does Chinese pollution have on Americans? (There have been stories of trash from China appearing on the West Coast of the U.S., for example.)?

AW: Chinese pollution does have an impact on the U.S., and it is critical that China ramps up its environmental regulation. But this is a two-way street.

In 2009, the money China invested in clean energy reached $34.6 billion, far surpassing any other major economy in the world. Photo: Flickr/coifmo66

The U.S. is now sending a tremendous amount of e-waste and other pollution to China. More critically, a significant percentage of the pollution produced in China is for export of products to the rest of the world.

One-third of greenhouse gas emissions emanating from China, one study found, are from producing products for export.

So, we in the U.S. can actually play a role in improving this situation by thinking carefully about the way we consume and demand that the companies we purchase from use or source from companies that use the most energy efficient, least polluting methods in China.

E911: We hear about China’s continued investment in clean energy, what is country about manufacturing waste and recycling?

AW: China has a great deal of work to do on pollution, control of waste and recycling. Environmental officials are out-manned and out-financed.

Whereas clean energy is receiving a flood of investment and policy support now, pollution control – while better than in the past – still needs a rapid infusion of resources, strengthened laws and policies.

E911: It would be interesting to learn more about China’s goals. What do the Chinese people think about these initiatives? We only hear about news from officials, but is there an overall sense of environmentalism from Chinese residents?

AW: Chinese officials and the citizenry alike know that pollution and environmental degradation are a serious problem that must be resolved. Environmental awareness has never been higher in China.

However, in the past there has been a view in many quarters that environmental protection and greater economic prosperity are in conflict. That viewpoint is changing as people realize the enormous cost that environmental degradation is visiting upon China.

E911: In the time that you have spent in China, what has been the most profound change you have witnessed?

AW: The biggest change we have seen over the last 15-20 years is the elevation of environmental protection and energy efficiency to a central place in China’s policies and laws.

Over the last five years, China has made energy efficiency and pollution targets one of the central elements of its five-year development plan. The rhetoric and the awareness of the issues are there. However, implementation is still an enormous challenge.

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