Op-Ed: Why China Is Both Awful and Awesome for the Environment

While China’s per capita greenhouse emissions might soon surpass the United States’, the country is making big strides in renewables.
(Photo: Stringer/Getty Images)
Apr 15, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Lucas Spangher is a junior at Duke University with an avid interest in green energy technology.

If you travelled back in time to 1980 and told an economist that China would sustain a double digit GDP growth rate for the next three decades, almost any, I think, would laugh at you.

We current observers have witnessed an economic boom of an unrivalled scale—China has hit the 40 percent urbanization mark just 22 years after the start of its industrialization, a feat that took the United States 80 years and Great Britain 120. Currently, the U.S. has nine cities with populations above one million; China has 160.

Let’s consider the environmental toll of that many people. In 2000, China’s total energy consumption was half of ours. Nine years later, in 2009, China’s overall energy consumption passed America’s. And as soon as 2017, China’s per capita emissions might pass the United States’. The trend in emissions is hardly surprising, since roughly 75 percent, or roughly 668 GW of China’s energy, is derived straight from coal.

Indeed, China’s coal consumption is on pace to literally match that of the entire world. It’s something that Time called “the scariest environmental fact in the world.” Consider for a moment the following graph:

That China’s coal consumption is the “scariest fact in the world” comes almost naturally to us, but should it? There is some pretty scary stuff out there. Global warming could kill up to 100 million people by 2030, and 50 percent of all species by the end of the century. Up to 200 million people could be displaced by 2020, causing border pressure, strife, and warfare.

True, China’s emissions are growing. But it’s the largest export economy in the world, with way more exports going to the U.S. and European Union than imports from these groups. So it’s growth is in part fueled by our consumption. And given that many of China’s major producers and emitters are actually multinational corporations with headquarters in the U.S. and E.U., it’s hardly fair to say that China’s emissions are all its own doing.

Furthermore, in its prodigious exports, China is by no means skimping on renewable energy. In fact, China dominates the solar panel and hydraulic turbine markets, with more than 38 percent and 27 percent shares respectively as of 2009.

China’s global market share is not as big in the wind industry, but across all three of these, growth has been exponential. It’s hardly surprising, since renewable energy featured heavily in China’s long-term renewable energy plant; of all nations, only the U.S. surpasses China in renewable financing.

Simply put, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic in these numbers. As environmentalists, we understand this better than most: The world needs someone to produce its renewable energy generators at a low cost competitive with gas/oil. China is ideally suited to do just that.

I was lucky enough to get a fellowship in the summer of 2012 to give environmental lectures at Tshinghua, China’s top university. I travelled around to Beijing’s middle and high schools and lectured there too. My message was met with incredible enthusiasm and attention. Youth blogs picked us up and re-blogged us thousands of times. It was amazing. Although this is purely anecdotal, the reception I got gives me great optimism about Chinese being a potential eco-powerhouse.

As does this recent development: On Sunday, April 14, the U.S. and China announced that they would “accelerate action to reduce greenhouse gases by advancing cooperation on technology, research, conservation, and alternative and renewable energy.”

In other words, the world’s two biggest polluters have shaken hands on saving the planet.

Can they do it?

Stay tuned.