"You Can Smell China's GDP in the Air"


There's a building back there, I swear!

In the aftermath of Solyndra, politicians have been looking for new reasons to justify government financing for renewable energy. Since green jobs have been a bust and many Americans don't care about climate change, beating China is the new raison d'être du jour.

In 2010, the Chinese government was the top spender on green energy projects worldwide, with $34 billion—almost double what the Unites States spent. It evens plan to create a new energy "superministry." As part of its next five-year plan (because those always work), China plans to spend almost $475 billion by 2017. Currently, China produces more wind turbines and solar panels than any other nation. The sheer number of the latter have led to accusations of "dumping" and ruining America's solar industry, with some solar manufacturers aggressively lobbying for tariffs. (Luckily, a rival coalition of solar businesses is lobbying to stop these tariffs, since starting a trade war in the middle of a recession is probably not the best idea.)

Green with China envy, environmentalists claim "America is losing the clean energy race," and naysayers are "un-American." Of course, few can top Thomas Friedman, whose now infamous September 8, 2009 column oozes orgasmic China envy:

There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today. One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.

Unfortunately for these watermelons, China uses incredibly tiny amounts of renewable energy. Writing in The Washington Post in April 2011, Bjorn Lomborg elaborates:

A sunny day in Shanghai

The explosive recent growth in Chinese solar and wind generation equates to going from zilch to a small fraction: Wind today generates just 0.05 percent of China's energy, and solar is responsible for one-half of one-thousandth of 1 percent.

The avoided carbon emissions from all of China's solar and wind generation—even maintained over the entire century—would lower temperatures in 2100 by 0.00002 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the equivalent, based on mainstream climate models, of delaying temperature rises at the end of the century by around five hours.

Plus, despite all that green spending, China is an industrial hellhole, with abysmal air quality and smog. Or as the Chinese government calls it, "heavy fog" or "light pollution." According to a study by the World Bank, exposure to outdoor air pollution kills 350,000 people each year prematurely, while indoor air pollution claims another 300,000 in China. In addition, the rate of lung cancer has increased by over 60% in the past decade, even though smoking levels have stagnated. Chinese air quality has deteriorated to the point where even basic visibility is a problem, cancelling flights and closing down highways. Some Beijing residents joke, "you can smell China's GDP in the air." 

Jealous much?

The main culprit for this miasma is coal. In a report publicized by Xinhua News Agency, 60 percent of the particulates responsible for smog come from coal generation. Over 70 of China's energy consumption comes from burning coal, equal to 3.2 billion tons in 2010. That's almost half of all coal burned on the entire planet. Of course, this massive increase in air pollution is a by-product of China's rapid economic growth–over 1,000 percent since 1978. Since cheap, abundant energy is necessary for prosperity, China has few options for cleaner energy sources. Wind and solar are still more expensive than coal, with the latter costing twice as much. Until renewables can reach "grid parity," i.e., the same price for electricity provided by the grid, low-carbon sources like nuclear power and natural gas will become supreme in the Middle Kingdom.

Reason on pollution and renewable energy. Matt Welch on the "banal authoritarianism" of Thomas Friedman. And here's reason.tv with the "skeptical environmentalist" himself, Bjorn Lomborg.