Lessons Learned from China

Aug 22, 2013

The pollution-induced smog and hacking cough that accompanied me throughout my recent visit to China were potent reminders of the ravages of climate change.

China’s meteoric rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 10% of the world’s total in 1990 to almost 30% of the emissions today also demonstrates how rapidly the GHG equation can change. The correlation between China’s carbon-based industrialization and its toxic GHG emissions build-up provides a warp speed confirmation of what has transpired in developed countries since the start of the industrial revolution over 160 years ago.

Climate change critics often decry the “folly” of addressing our GHG emissions problems when China (seemingly) does little to curtail their emissions. Indeed, after replacing the United States as the leading polluter in 2007, China’s situation has worsened. But, to say that China is oblivious to or does “little” to address their toxic situation is simply to ignore the facts.
Let me share a few lessons we can learn from China about pollution and climate change:

  1. Wake up to the risk and act: China knows it has a pollution catastrophe on its hands and has instituted, as part of its Five-year Plan, aggressive measures to address the challenge. With their track record for undertaking humongous projects and meeting long term goals, don’t be surprised to see significant strides made.
  2. Goals and metrics count: China has embarked on a program to reduce its energy intensity level as related to GDP growth. Its carbon emissions are now growing at half the rate of its GDP growth, and its investment in renewable energy systems now exceeds that of all other countries by a long shot. With a target of increasing non-fossil fuel energy – nuclear and renewable – to 11.4% by 2015 and 15% by 2020, and taking on a host of other energy and water intensity targets, they know what they need to do and are doing it.
  3. Imperatives for action: With four times the population of the U.S. and an economy growing over three times as fast, China’s voluminous energy needs – and the concomitant emissions they produce – are formidable.  Its severe water shortages – particularly in northern China; massive migration from rural to urban areas and rising living standards complicate the challenge, but the imperative for addressing pollution and climate change is literally in the air they breathe. 

Like most of their big challenges, China will tackle this with every means at its disposal. From an extensive high speed rail system to carbon pricing policies, emission trading markets, solar and wind farms and more, look for a full court press; they get it and are committed to doing something about it.

By contrast, the imperatives for action are less obvious in America. Our forward progress on clean energy and emissions controls are all too often stymied by political and economic imperatives to win the next election and/or meet Wall Street’s quarterly earnings expectations. 

However one might feel about addressing clean energy and climate change, using China as an excuse for not acting does not hold water. In fact, there are lessons we can learn from them.

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