Foreign and Defense Policy, China

China: The big green polluter

Image Credit: Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock.com

Image Credit: Hung Chung Chih / Shutterstock.com

In the Sunday Times, two researchers at Harvard tout the exemplary commitment of the Beijing government to address the related challenges of air pollution and climate change:

China has spent enormously to reduce air pollution and to limit carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of climate change. In fact, its investments to decarbonize its energy system have dwarfed those of any other nation. And its forceful regulation to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants may be one of the most swiftly effective air pollution policies ever implemented anywhere…

[There are also] China’s enormous investments to decarbonize its energy system. In less than 10 years it has built the world’s largest wind power capacity, with plans to triple it by 2020. Its hydropower capacity, also the largest in the world, is expected to triple from 2005 to 2020, and its nuclear capacity will multiply at least sixfold over that same period. And China is increasing imports and production of natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel.

Yet the authors concede, “China’s faltering progress on air quality resembles its record on carbon dioxide. Those emissions have risen by about 8 percent a year since 2007 and increased from nearly 14 percent of global emissions in 2000 to 27 percent in 2011.” Depending on your ideas about the effectiveness of government, you may find it more or less surprising that investing a tremendous amount of energy and resources has not had the intended effect.

The explanation seems to lie in the chart that accompanies the article in the Times. It reminds us that China consumes four times as much coal as we do, and its usage is growing rapidly, while ours is declining. It only uses 60% as much oil, but again, it’s usage is growing fast while ours is declining.

For an expert-level assessment of China’s green energy blues, the place to start is Derek Scissors’ testimony before the Senate from way back in June 2012. Sixteen months ahead of the Harvard men in the Times, he stated succinctly:

There are serious misconceptions regarding China’s energy and environmental performance and  what it means for the US. China is indeed spending a great deal of money on clean energy, but it  is doing so largely in response to its own policy errors. The combined results of this spending and these errors are abysmal—waste, below-average gains in energy efficiency, lack of innovation, greater dependence on foreign sources, and a terrible record on the environment.

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