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Originally published in the 4 Feb 2013 edition of The Nation here

China’s Green Leap Backward

Lucia Green-Weiskel | January 16, 2013


Reuters/Jason Lee

Signaling China’s ambition to be the world’s leader in solar energy, Beijing officials announced in January that the country had installed an impressive seven gigawatts of solar power capacity in 2012 and would add an additional ten gigawatts this year. The bold announcement is consistent with the “Green Leap Forward,” China’s goal to assert global leadership in renewable energy and low-carbon development. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen three years ago, Wu Changhua, China director of the London-based Climate Group, galvanized an auditorium of environmentalists by stating that low-carbon growth had become “mainstream” in China. No longer a fringe industry, clean energy would be transformed into a robust market, with mass-scale production enabling global distribution and bringing downward pressure on prices everywhere. China would become a cornucopia of state-of-the-art, cheap and abundant green technology, all flowing from the enlightened thinking of its centrally planned economy and ambitious energy-savings targets.

But by the end of 2012, even the most optimistic surveys of China’s energy mix showed that low-carbon growth is still nowhere near mainstream. In fact, the clean-tech industry is encountering major obstacles, with government officials admitting to “broad operational difficulties” regarding the latest solar power expansion. For many Beijingers, it is difficult to maintain enthusiasm for China’s so-called leadership in low-carbon growth when the city’s air is rapidly deteriorating. A mid-January reading from the US embassy showed the Air Quality Index at a shocking 728—on a scale of 1 to 500, with 200 considered a serious health risk.

* * *

Three recent developments have shifted China’s tack toward a more fossil-fuel-centered approach and away from the low-carbon model the country pursued under outgoing president Hu Jintao. This trend is dangerous for the entire planet, since China is also the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and will soon have the world’s largest economy.

First, the inauguration of pro-market president Xi Jinping marks a shift away from the conservation-oriented, government-planned approach of his predecessor toward a model marked by increased privatization, including tax cuts for private enterprises, relaxed political controls, programs to boost domestic consumption and intensified resource exploitation. Xi insists that low-carbon growth will remain a priority and that the ambitious energy-saving targets of the twelfth Five Year Plan, issued in March 2011, will be met. But the targets were written in such a way that many of the details for implementation are open to interpretation. While the government had previously signaled that it would rely on growth in wind and solar to meet its goal (11.4 percent of total energy from renewable sources by 2015), it now looks like the bulk of that will come from nuclear and hydroelectric. Wind and solar are growing, but as a proportion of China’s total energy expenditure, coal is growing much faster.

Xi’s environmental pledges have aroused widespread doubts. Two anti-pollution activists, Wu Lihong—who was jailed for publicly implicating the government in the fouling of Lake Tai—and Chen Faqing, recently placed an ad in The New York Times calling on Xi not to abandon China’s ambitious energy targets. Wu was quoted as saying, “Mainland officials are apt to talk about environmental protection, but we have witnessed exactly the opposite…. That’s why we stress the importance of matching their words to their deeds.”

Second, shifts in US energy consumption patterns, as well as changes in estimates of global oil reserves, will affect China’s long-term energy strategy. The International Energy Agency reports that discoveries of shale gas combined with new drilling technologies will make the United States the world’s largest oil producer by 2020. This is expected to make oil reserves in the Middle East and Central Asia newly available to China—which could reverse the shortage-driven incentive structure that promoted growth in China’s renewable energy sector. At the same time, China discovered that it may have the largest shale gas reserves in the world. A Chinese shale gas boom, coupled with increased output from coal and imported oil, could marginalize wind and solar energy. Moreover, with Washington now looking to shale gas rather than wind and solar for new energy resources, prospects for increased US consumption of China’s green exports are diminished.

Fortunately, supply and demand factors alone do not dictate the health of China’s renewable energy industry. Andrew Nathan, China expert and professor of political science at Columbia University, pointed out that China seeks energy independence for security reasons, which could bolster renewables. “The Chinese believe that in a real confrontation with the United States—not that this is likely to happen in the foreseeable future—the United States can interfere with the shipping of oil to China,” said Nathan. “To allay this double anxiety there are a range of policies, including trying to make more efficient use of energy, building hydro and nuclear, renewable, building pipelines which are less subject to interdiction, and relying more on closer neighbors.”

Third, consumption patterns have eroded one of China’s most promising areas for low-carbon development: electric vehicles. A recent McKinsey & Co. report ranked China’s EV market a dismal fifth behind Japan, the United States, France and Germany. Even with generous subsidies for consumers and manufacturers, EV sales are sluggish, accounting for less than 0.02 percent of total vehicles sold (in the United States, it’s 0.09 percent). Demand is growing for gas-guzzling SUVs as well as luxury and medium-weight vehicles, especially foreign models, with imports of foreign-manufactured cars nearly doubling in 2010. The top-selling car in 2011 was the Buick Excelle, followed by the Volkswagen Lavida and the Chevrolet Cruze. China’s domestic vehicle manufacturers are drastically scaling back their small, fuel-efficient models and EV fleets and attempting to regroup around the new high-carbon model. In fact, China’s EV manufacturers are turning away from personal cars altogether and focusing on hybrid and electric city buses and taxi cabs. The major buyers of EVs are local governments and large state-owned corporations, not individuals.

Furthermore, without reform of the energy grid, EVs will do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. My colleagues and I at the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation recently completed a study of China’s EV industry in which we discovered that, on average, EVs produce more greenhouse gas emissions per kilometer than their traditional internal-combustion counterparts. That’s because EVs draw energy from electricity grids, some of which rely on coal—the dirtiest of fossil fuels—for up to 98 percent of generation. Only in regions where the grid depends on nuclear and hydro energy did the EV reduce its carbon footprint.

Foreign-manufactured autos have so far been excluded from China’s fuel-economy standards, which are stricter than those in the United States. Currently, China imposes a tariff on foreign-manufactured cars, which has helped Beijing enforce its fuel-economy standards. But the Obama administration is petitioning the World Trade Organization to force China to drop tariffs on imports. If Obama’s bid is successful, an increasingly smaller share of China’s auto market (now the largest in the world) will be subject to strict efficiency regulations.

After the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, China announced that it would scale back its ambitious nuclear energy program and accelerate wind and solar development [see Green-Weiskel, “China Rethinks Nuclear Power,” May 9, 2011]. And China has set new records for investment in renewable energy over the past year, with rapid construction of wind and solar installations. But many of them haven’t generated a single megawatt of power since their ribbon-cutting ceremonies. A recent report by the Worldwatch Institute states that half of the installed wind capacity in northeast China is not connected to any grid—$5.4 billion in unrealized investment—and that 80 percent of wind turbines at one Gansu location stand idle, even in perfect weather conditions, because of technical challenges. Plans for massive solar farms with installed capacity that could rival even the biggest coal plant have stalled because China is unable to gain a technological edge over its competitors. In an interview, Worldwatch’s Ma Haibing put China’s renewable energy sector in global perspective: “Chinese solar and wind energy industries are really not the pioneers in technology innovation. In fact, the state-of-the-art technologies in those two fields are mostly owned by European and American enterprises.”

To be fair, many of the connectivity and technical problems will likely improve with time. Greenpeace’s China Wind Power Outlook 2012 shows that some of the technical challenges have already been resolved since the earlier reports. And again, market conditions are not the only factor at play: China has its own peculiar outlook on green energy. According to Ma, “China’s development of solar and wind is not just for energy purposes. They are aiming to become the global leader of this so-called boom of clean technology. The government is trying to make ‘Made in China’ clean-tech equipment and products dominant” in the global marketplace. Ma thus predicts that China’s wind and solar industry will continue to grow. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into increased installed capacity: most Chinese-made clean technology is exported abroad.

The news is not all bleak, though. Popular demand for fuel-inefficient cars may be growing, but there is also growing protest and civil unrest—both spontaneous and planned—against pollution and environmental problems. In October 2012, protesters in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, clashed repeatedly with police until the government promised to halt plans for the construction of a petrochemical plant. Through petitions and demonstrations, villagers in Qiugang, Anhui Province, shut down a chemical factory that was polluting waterways and raising cancer risks. Even without popular elections, Xi Jinping’s government will have to take seriously this new power of the people if it hopes to remain viable.

Originally published by Huffington Post here.

With greenhouse gas emissions hitting record levels and passing climate scientist’s worst predictions, a new group of Chinese activists, traditionally silenced by an authoritarian government, is making its voice heard at the United Nations climate talks, the COP17, which began this week in Durban, South Africa.

China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. With this unflattering superlative comes significant political pressure — from both the international community and China’s own population.

The delegation of independent Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) believes that civil society must play a bigger role in the global climate crisis. According to one organizer, Dr. Yang Fuqiang from the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The world is paying attention to China, so the Chinese NGOs need to take action.”

C Plus is the name given to the initiative launched by 42 Chinese NGOs (full disclosure: my NGO, the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation is a leading member) calling for domestic and global action to fight climate change. The NGOs who have lent themselves to this cause claim that the only way to create a fair, ambitious and legally-binding deal in Durban is to mobilize NGOs to put pressure on their governments to take action, another organizer, Jiliang Chen told me. “The best way of demanding governments’ action is to take actions by ourselves,” he said. The message is clear: climate action is too important and too urgent. It can’t wait. The top-down process of negotiations that we are seeing at the UN is too slow.

Xueyu Li

Li Xueyu from the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation discusses carbon management at a recent conference in Beijing.

C Plus has three components, which together explain its name. C Plus stands for: Beyond Commitment. This means that NGOs must put pressure on their governments to achieve targets that are beyond those that have been officially stated. Second is Beyond China — in other words, NGOs outside and inside of China together must strive to influence their respective governments to take action. Finally, Beyond Climate. The initiative targets not just carbon reduction but other environmental measures as well such as clean water and air, public education, water conservation and preservation of forests.

The initiative was born out of the disappointment of the COP15 — the UN climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen which bogged down over the degree of responsibility between developed and developing nations. The Chinese delegation largely held the view that, as a developing nation, it should be exempt from legally-binding international agreements constructed by the UN parties because it is more important that it grow its economy and lift people out of poverty than reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That task, they argued, should be left to the rich countries who, they claimed, created the problem in the first place.

However, the failure in Copenhagen galvanized NGOs to take actions with a new level of urgency. With headlines like “Climate change leads to extreme weather events: report” and “Scarcity of land, water pose severe challenge to mankind” and “Climate change threatens drop in grain harvest,” the case for immediate action is building in China. (This, even while the climate-denier position is gaining traction in especially the Republican quarters of American politics.)

With similar fault lines set to plague the talks in Durban, it will be interesting to see what role NGOs can play. In the last few years, NGOs have enjoyed increasing influence and visibility, especially after Chinese Climate Czar, Xie Zhenhua, praised NGOs last year for playing a “constructive role” in China’s climate policy.

And NGOs can claim some notable successes. As Chen reminded me, NGOs were responsible for the regulation which imposes the 26 degree Celsius cap on air conditioning units. They were instrumental in challenging the damming of the Nu River. A group of Chinese citizens organized together and stopped the construction of a dangerous paraxylene chemical plant in Xiamen.

“Sustainable development requires a paradigm shift of the society,” said Chen. “NGOs are such a small group, if they cannot work collectively, it is very unlikely that they could make the shift as they wish to see.” In Durban, Chinese NGOs have arrived as a team and are prepared to assert their demands.

Follow Lucia Green-Weiskel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LuciaGGW

[My last blog for Peter Beinart's class]

My first trip to China was almost ten years ago. I boarded a plane for a flight that would take over 24 hours to get me from Boston to Shanghai with a layover in Vancover. Air Canada – not much over $500, if I remember correctly.

When I landed and got off the plane I felt I must be on the moon. Nothing had ever felt so foreign. It was a fairly unstructured study-abroad program of one person – me. I was to be a “visiting scholar” at the government-run Academy of Social Sciences in Hefei, an unknown third tier city of with a population larger than New York City. I had arranged living accommodations, daily Chinese classes and lined up someone who would greet me in Hefei. If only I could get there. I bought a bus ticket from a man who told me to meet him on a street corner. The trip would put me out just over the equivalent of two dollars. It was the first renminbi I had spent and he didn’t have change for my crisp 100 Yuan bill.

In the six months I was away, I called home once from a pay phone on a street corner. After dialing in 4 sets of 10 digit numbers, I could hear my family’s distance voices until we were cut off 4 minutes and 58 seconds later.  Today I travel to China sometimes three times a year. With my netbook and ubiquitous wifi I can stay connected as easily as if I am in my home office in Brooklyn. Once I scheduled an appointment with my New York dentist over the phone from a hotel in Beijing. Another time I circumvented Chinese censors by calling my husband’s Skype account so I could listen to the BBC news on our home radio. What a difference ten years makes. I can’t imagine ever writing a “letter from China” like this again. (Unless of course that is the title of a magazine article). These letters are the real “letters from China.”

In Hefei, I only had internet access for one hour a day and during that time wrote feverishly — to my mother, sister and friends. For my final blog for this class, I thought I would take a trip back in time to remember some of those old letters.

Me with students from Beijing Foreign Affairs University, Spring 2002

 

Here is one early letter, to my mother, about being a vegetarian in China:

So far I am loving everything. Most food is unidentifiable to me. I have tried all sorts of things, something might have had meat in them, but I only tried a little. This usually happens when I am invited to dinner at someone’s house and I don’t want to be rude. Most people ask, and then only serve me vegetarian food, but for Chinese “vegetarian” translates as something like “jealous person”. So I just go down the list, … I don’t eat beef, I don’t eat pork, I don’t eat turtle, I don’t eat mutton… I tried once to say instead what I do eat: vegetables, tofu and wheat. I didn’t know the word for bread so I said Wheat, which brought on fits of laughter, I guess I was describing the diet of a cow. Also, I did what I was told was the equivalent of dipping your pizza in your coffee. I put my fried vegetables in the bowl with my dumpling sauce. This brought on more fits of laughter from my hosts. There are some things I have turned down. Like lotus with bees. Now I eat this all the time though, since my Chinese has improved, I realize this was a bad translation and it is really just lotus and honey — very good.

And another, after my first solo travel in China:

Hong Kong is green and gorgeous. It is so nice to be in a city that is full of Buddhist and Daoist temples with incense pouring out .The ocean is green and it is not polluted like mainland China plus it  has a “coffee culture” which I really appreciate. And The Economist is on newsstands!

I returned to Hefei by train. This was quite horrible. I took a train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and then was planning to get on the overnight train to Hefei from there. Nothing was in English and people only speak Cantonese which I can’t understand at all. The train station was huge and I was completely lost and could not find the right ticket window or where I was supposed to board or anything. The “lines” for the ticket windows were like a mosh pit, one of the craziest things I have ever seen. You have to push and shove and everyone is yelling and elbowing you, not New York City subway-style, but hard malicious jabs in the ribs. I kept losing my place because this group of men would convince me I was in the wrong line and then I would move out of the mosh pit and lose all of the progress I had made. I finally figured it out somehow, but discovered that even if you buy a ticket, it does not guarantee you a place on the train. I had to push through a sea of people trampling each other, old ladies getting knocked on the floor, contents of purses spilled out, crying babies, angry beckoning fathers, rolley bags being hoisted over heads to get through the dense forest of legs. When the gate came down everyone went crazy throwing themselves on the floor on top of each other trying to get under the gate to get on the train. I had to do this too. I had no more money with me [there were no ATMs in China at that time] so I had to get on that train or else I would have been stuck in Guangzhou without money or communication. Everyone was climbing in and out of the windows of the train. Should I do that too? Or stand in “line”? I met a gentle girl my age who spoke Mandarin and helped me out. We sat together on the train (30 hours to Hefei) and she sang sweetly to me next to an open window with the night country side zooming past. First Chinese songs, then “Take me home, West Virginia” which embarrassingly brought tears to my eyes. West Virginia, where I’ve never been, suddenly felt like home. She called me her sister and gave me the Chinese equivalent of a best-friends-forever bracelet. In the middle of the night she woke me up and told me that her wallet was stolen and could I give her money. I did but suddenly felt like our “friendship” to her had reached its purpose and was now over. I was so disappointed and officially declared everyone in China my enemy. I felt like everyone was trying to trick me for my money or for their entertainment. Then in the middle of the night while I was sleeping clutching my bag, I felt a man’s hands touching me. I bolted up and clutching my purse, ready to throw something at his eye sockets, but he was just putting my blanket over me which had fallen on the floor.

The next time I woke up it was light out and two giddy girls were taking pictures of my feet (big, I guess) which were sticking out the end of my bed.

 

And a few months later, this one to my sister:

Life is so great here. Buses are interesting, they are just a little larger than a VW bus and usually packed when you get on. Everyone stands. I am a head taller than everyone else, so buses are particularly interesting for me because my head is usually touching the ceiling, so I am being compressed horizontally and vertically simultaneously. Then when I think we must be at capacity, the bus stops. Five more disgruntled commuters shove themselves into the mass of humans. It is remarkable how many people you can fit on a bus. The other thing is there is no coffee. Instant coffee is available in the supermarket but the only milk is powdered baby formula, so it really is not even worth it. I have learned that it is best to stick to eating and drinking what everyone else does. Green tea or just plain boiled water all the time, oolong or black on special occasions, and pijiu (light beer) the rest of the time. And then there is baijiu, which is a little stronger than vodka, tastes retched, but warms you up, and loosens the tongue. good for speaking Chinese!

Some other good things:
CDs and DVDs are sold for 1 US dollar each, and pretty much everything is available. Even movies that were not yet released in the US when I left are available on DVD here. I do a lot of exploring, getting on random buses and just seeing where I go, then walking a bit and getting on another one. If I lose track of my steps I can always hail a taxi and for a little over a dollar I can say “ni hao wo yao qu jiu jin san da dui” and they will take me home. I am enjoying a lot the translations of things into English. A friend’s hotel bathroom had a sign that said “beware of the slipperies.” And there is the “Sad Feelings American Music” CD of mostly Kenny G. A friend told me not to”keep my fingers acrossed” for the good weather. A note on my tea mug reads the whimsical/philosophical: “if you own this cup you will don’t have all.” There are fireworks all the time, like right now, even in broad day light there is a firework show on the street. At night, fireworks are so loud I have had to pause the movie. This is because it is almost the Chinese New Year, Spring Festival.

I decided to go on an adventure and go out to this party with a couple that I met at a restaurant. Their English was poor so all I really knew was that they would pick me up at 5:30.  It ended up being his company’s (a watermelon seed company) Chinese New Year party which was a dinner party that got rowdy quickly. After dinner was Karaoke. The first song came on, and the vice-general-president-manager, a gruff, ruggedly handsome, smoky intense face with a slow smile held out his hand. I realized he wants me to dance. With him, alone, on the stage. At this point, everyone is very drunk but I decided that I was going to just do this, and get over my fears and discomfort and embarrassment. So I danced with this guy in front of everyone, then all the vice-manager-officers and assistant-general-deputy-secretaries and manager-director-presidents wanted to dance with me, too, or give me roses or toast each other with linked arms the way brides and grooms do. Finally I sat down and a particularly weak singer took the stage. Another man stood up and tried to get the crowd back to its rowdy self by conducting the audience with his chop sticks. Then all the lights went out and it was disco dancing time. I think Gruff Man took a special liking to me because he had asked me to dance several times, toast several times, and was the one who gave me the rose that I had to keep passing to people and then taking back again. Everyone was now eating pieces of a very giant cake that appeared to be 80% frosting. Gruff Man came up to me and I thought he was going to say something that I might need a translator for, but while I am looking around for some such person, WHAM, he throws his piece of cake in my face! I was so shocked, I couldn’t picture something I expected less. I was looking around for an explanation trying to figure out if I had just been insulted or honored, while a woman next to me is wiping pink frosting out of my ear canal. When my host discovered what had happened he apologized over and over and explained to me in Chinese that this meant I was the Lucky One of the Party for the New Year, and an honor. He could tell I was not pleased and tried to make me feel better by sticking his finger in his own cake and putting frosting on his cheeks like warrior paint, and with a little laugh sticking some in his ear drum too. “See??? It is OK! We are all happy, this is happiness! This is Chinese custom and we are all so happy!” he said with the grin and the good old universal two thumbs up, which I have unfortunately also adopted.

My experiences in China now couldn’t be more different. I am less awed, more hurried. Starbucks is everywhere (although the buses are still crowded). I am in touch with my husband so often when I travel that he doesn’t even need to ask “how was your trip?” when I get home. I am not sure if it is China changing, or new technology or getting older or all three that is responsible for the change.

After my 13th trip, China (well, Beijing) is like a second home. People always say about China that you can come to China for a week and become and expert and write a book about it, but if you stay a little longer you begin to realize how little you know about such a big country. And if you stay long enough, you should just forget about writing anything altogether. These letters remind me of what that first impression is like, with all the hubris, naivety and delight that is wrapped up in it.

I recently read a brilliant article by China correspondent Evan Osnos in the New Yorker about his experience joining a Chinese tour group on a trip to Europe [The Grand Tour, April 18th 2011]. He describes a trip at blazing speed through five countries in ten days in which tourists were told to be vigilant about thieves and unnecessary engagement with strangers was not advised. “We were as mobile and self-contained as a cruise ship,” he writes. What struck me most was that his descriptions of the Chinese tourists reminded me a lot of us.

The Chinese tourists saw Europeans as slow and inefficient. Osnos recalls:

“We have to get used to the fact that Europeans sometimes move slowly,” [the tour guide] said. When shopping in China, he went on, “we’re accustomed to three of us putting our items on the counter at the same time, and then the old lady gives change to three people without making a mistake. Europeans don’t do that.”

And later:

Li made a great show of acting out a Mediterranean life style: “Wake up slowly, brush teeth, make a cup of espresso, take in the aroma.” The crowd laughed. “With a pace like that, how can their economies keep growing? It’s impossible.” He added, “In this world, only when you have diligent, hardworking people will the nation’s economy grow.”

And by comparison, the Chinese tourists view their own culture as efficient and nimble, allowing them to emerge as a richer and faster-growing economy:


Our guide had mocked Europe’s stately pace, but Zheng said her countrymen have come to believe that “if you don’t elbow your way on to everything you’ll be last.” A car paused for us at a crosswalk, and Zheng drew a contrast: Drivers at home think, “I can’t pause. Otherwise, I’ll never get anywhere,” she said.

And later, one tourist admits she is not impressed:

Midway through the trip, the daughter was politely unmoved. “Other than different buildings, the Seine didn’t look all that different from the Huangpu,” she said. “Subway? We have a subway. You name it, we’ve got it.” She laughed.

There is a sense throughout (and I have noticed this too in my own experiences in China) that Chinese people, generally, see themselves as more practical [read: better] than their European counterparts. They view their culture as more efficient, wasting less time in “high culture” like fine art, slow dining and savoring the aroma of a cup of coffee.

Americans, I would argue, are actually a lot like these Chinese tourists. For example, I was struck by how much Osnos’s reading of the Chinese in Europe is similar to Alexis De Tocqueville’s reading of Americans in his famous 19th Century book “Democracy in America.” Tocqueville sees Americans as pragmatic people (think of the proverbs in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac) who seek virtue and honor through hard work and good character. Believing that every man could “pull himself up by the bootstraps,” Americans rejected European aristocracies – in which one could inherit virtue and nobility in only one way: by blood. In the aristocratic social structure, with their inheritance (whether it be substantial or not) secured from the moment they are born, Europeans didn’t have to be so pragmatic and hardworking. Instead they had abundant leisure time in which they could pursue philosophy and fine art. For Tocqueville, the American emphasis on work made them “seekers of the middle” — a society based on utilitarianism, efficiency and conformity. Americans, observed by Tocqueville, chauvinistically pledged themselves to the American dream. With work as the central value in society, Americans had no taste for fine things and instead sought comfort rather than high beauty. Osnos’s descriptions of Chinese tourists in Europe frowning on the slow pace of European life strikes uncanny cords of similarity with Tocqueville’s description of early Americans.

Chinese tourism under Mao Zedong was deemed anti-patriotic and illegal until 1978.  And it wasn’t until 1997 that Chinese people could travel beyond certain countries in Southeast Asia. As a result Chinese people haven’t learned to be tourists in the way that Europeans, Canadians or Australians have. Likewise, Americans are known for their infrequent overseas travel (many Americans don’t even have passports). I am reminded of the old joke: What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Answer: Bilingual. What do you call some who speaks three? Answer: Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? Answer: American.

And why is that? Perhaps it is because, we like China, have a deep rooted feeling that we are the best nation in the world. “China” in Chinese is Zhongguo, literally, “middle country,”  as in the middle of the earth (that is how we get “middle kingdom”. Like the “unmoved” daughter Osnos writes about, Americans believe that America has everything and is indeed a “chosen” nation to put it in religious terms. If you are already among the chosen, why travel?

To the Europeans, Americans in the 19th Century were the pragmatic, utilitarian engineers with all the related connotations. Now, from an American point of view, China is taking that role.

May 9, 2011

I have to admit I don’t spend much time thinking about the tedious war on science known as “climate change denial.” I find this contrarian bunch to be small-minded and senseless and mostly just boring because without any scientific credentials they are trying to make a scientific argument (that climate change doesn’t exist or if it does, it is natural) with which 99.9% of trained scientists disagree. Personally, I’d rather get my science from scientists.

But there is a bigger reason not to waste my valuable cranial capacity coming up with responses and counter points to this giddy flock of charlatans: Even if they were right, it wouldn’t matter.

First of all, we know that Earth has serious environmental problems. Urban air pollution, trashed rivers and algae covered lakes are palpable evidence. We also know that we waste a lot of energy, through inefficient technologies or practices. Fossil fuels are expensive, pollution is ugly and fresh healthy food and environments are good. These are pretty basic assumptions that I think most people can agree with. Even if the human-generated greenhouse gases emitted into the earth’s atmosphere don’t cause sea levels to rise resulting in wide spread destruction of arable land, food shortages, environmental refuges and widespread disease, it is still a good idea to clean up our environment and use energy more efficiently. The cartoon below sums up the logic I am getting at:

The other reason why climate deniers are not interesting to me is that the energy policy of the largest emitting country in the world, China, is not driven by the science they aim to destroy. I was surprised to learn that many of the members on the climate change negotiation team in at the high-profile UN climate change conferences in Cancun and Copenhagen held personal beliefs that were aligned with climate deniers. Even one of my colleagues admitted to me a few months back that she “isn’t sure that climate change exists.” This is a woman I have been working with for five years on promoting climate change policy in China, so at first I was taken aback when I heard her confession. But then I learned that what I call “climate change policy” she thinks of as “sensible energy policy”. Same concept and purpose, different rationales and language. If you want a clean environment, healthy air and water and cheap and abundant renewable energy, it doesn’t matter if climate change exists or not. They are different means to the same end. And, regardless of the science, geopolitics dictates that China needs to have an energy policy that will promise inexpensive and abundant sources of energy in the coming decades.

In 1993, China became a net importer of oil. In 2009, China became a net importer of coal.  In 2010 China’s rapidly growing economy surged ahead to become the largest consumer of energy in the world. Today, coal, oil and natural gas fuel the Chinese economy. But those sources are becoming more expensive and available only in distant and (often war torn) parts of the world. If China is going to keep its economy growing at the current rate, it will need to expand its exploitation of new sources of energy, like hydro, solar, wind and nuclear.  As the second largest economy in the world, growing at an annual rate of 10%, China doesn’t have a choice of this or that type of energy. It must take whatever it can get.

Concern over climate change has brought new urgency to green technology and the renewable energy industry, transforming the market and breathing new life into solar and wind farms, electric vehicles and low-carbon appliances. While these products may help the world avoid climate disasters, from China’s point of view, they also help China continue its break-neck growth rate without becoming too dependent on imported fossil fuels. In short, the need to diversify energy sources is a far more important driver of China’s energy policy than climate change.

So we have an odd situation where a country run by lawyers (the US) is incubating climate deniers who have launched a war on science. And a country run by scientists (China) doesn’t really care about the science of climate change, but is enacting ambitious new climate-saving policies on the basis of geopolitics. Go figure.

But it is for that reason that I don’t spend much time concerned about the fact that many of China’s top climate policy makers are climate deniers (although I do worry about this fact, very much, in the US).

First published in The Nation here.

Lucia Green-Weiskel | April 21, 2011
In the wake of the partial meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan, China announced it would shelve plans for vast expansion of its nuclear power capacity, at least temporarily, until more stringent safety checks are performed. Construction will eventually resume, but with a potentially scaled-back role for nuclear power and with solar and wind energy picking up some of the slack. If nuclear remains a small fraction of China’s total energy mix (just 2 percent today, compared with America’s 20 percent), and Beijing looks to solar and wind for future energy growth in the era of climate change, the boost to those industries could make renewables cost-competitive with fossil fuels much earlier than previously projected.

 

The announcement marked a significant policy change. As recently as January, after reporting a breakthrough in nuclear fuel reprocessing technology, China reaffirmed its commitment to an expansion of its nuclear energy capacity that would be greater than that of all other countries combined. Construction began on twenty-seven reactors, adding to the existing thirteen. Another fifty-two were planned.

Just days after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, China passed into law its Twelfth Five Year Plan, which will serve as the country’s economic blueprint until 2015. The primary theme of the plan is sustainable development, with a high priority on securing nonfossil fuel energy sources. New policies include reducing carbon intensity by 17 percent by 2015. That means manufacturing entities would need to emit at least 17 percent less carbon in 2015 than they emitted in 2010 for the same amount of economic output. The plan also mandates ambitious energy-cutting targets, implementation of market mechanisms like cap and trade, and generation of 11.4 percent of total energy from nonfossil fuels by 2015, up from the current 8 percent. Pre-Fukushima, a sizable portion of that 11.4 percent was to come from nuclear sources. That target is being reconsidered.

The planners of the world’s second-largest economy are facing a labyrinth of competing constraints. China is the world’s largest user of energy, at a time of global shortages and high fossil fuel prices. The ruling party feels compelled to seek continued rapid economic growth in order to employ its people and maintain the image of a country steadily marching toward industrial modernization—lest the party lose its legitimacy and risk a Cairo-style uprising. So China must try to expand economic development, but not its greenhouse gas footprint. That’s like driving from New York to Boston and then figuring out how to use the same amount of gas to get from Boston to California. To achieve this, China will have to wring more energy from sources like wind and solar. And that is in fact the plan. The country’s National Energy Administration said in March that energy from solar sources may double over the next five years, from five to ten gigawatts.

Even if it doesn’t reduce the role of nuclear energy, China is emerging as a pacesetter in solar and wind technology. It currently produces half the world’s solar panels; in the city of Rizhao, population 3 million, 99 percent of homes have solar hot-water heaters. Last year China reportedly installed three times as much wind-power capacity as the United States, and the pace is expected to increase in the next decade. Even if China were to implement its most ambitious nuclear plan, total energy from that sector in 2020 would be about a third of projected wind output. Without nuclear expansion, wind and solar will need to make up the difference. Renewable energy authorities have indicated they are optimistic about their ability to meet expanded demand.

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There are good reasons for China to shelve its nuclear industry for good even without the lesson of Fukushima. Although it is less earthquake prone than Japan, China is not immune to a temblor-triggered disaster. In May 2008 a massive quake, 7.9 on the Richter scale, hit Sichuan province, where many nuclear warheads as well as several reactors and two plutonium plants were located. No significant damage to the nuclear facilities was reported, but there is no guarantee the outcome will always be so fortuitous. After all, before Fukushima three of the largest nuclear accidents in history—Lucens in Switzerland in 1969, Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986—were not caused by seismic activity. Like all nuclear facilities, China’s plants are vulnerable to human and mechanical error as well as terrorist attack. And many of the newer plants are in densely populated areas, so fallout from a meltdown could cause massive suffering.

Another drawback of nuclear energy is the vast amount of water required to generate steam and to cool spent fuel rods. China’s energy sector, like that of many other countries, competes with agriculture for water, which is in scarce supply—the country has suffered major droughts in the past decade, with some rivers running dry. The problem became so serious that in 2002 Beijing launched the giant South-to-North Water Transfer Project, costing approximately $62 billion and displacing hundreds of thousands of people who lived along its routes. Worries about food security and grain prices have already led China to express concern about biofuels. Food shortages could result in vastly increased imports, which would drive up global prices. And, as with all other countries that rely on nuclear power, China hasn’t solved the problem of storing ever-growing quantities of nuclear waste.

There is no question that China will find it difficult to restrict nuclear energy. It is the type of project the government is best at: large-scale infrastructure requiring extensive government investment and oversight. On the surface, nuclear appears to be a quick fix to two of the most pressing problems facing Beijing: air pollution and the need to become less dependent on foreign energy sources. For this reason, most analysts say growth in nuclear power is inevitable.

The biggest obstacle to a nuclear-free China may be the industry itself. The country has a powerful nuclear interest group that is not likely to yield quietly to restrictions, and the intermingling of business interests and politics strengthens nuclear advocates in China and the United States. In January President Hu Jintao met with Barack Obama in Washington at a state summit, which generated $45 billion in business between the two countries, with many of the projects advancing nuclear and “clean coal” interests. China’s State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation (SNPTC) walked away with a $5.3 billion deal with US-based Westinghouse, which will provide development, service and maintenance on its AP1000 nuclear technology in Zhejiang and Shandong provinces.

With its pockets full of cash and the prospect of new deals to come, the nuclear lobby didn’t skip a beat in responding to Beijing’s post-Fukushima freeze. Representatives from the China National Nuclear Corporation issued a statement that its nuclear safety standards were higher than the world average.

The government is split on the issue. Xie Zhenhua, who led the Chinese negotiating team at the UN climate talks in Cancún last year and is vice chair of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s most powerful agency, denied there would be any slowdown in the expansion of nuclear power. But Premier Wen Jiabao said China’s long- and medium-term nuclear plans would be “adjusted and improved.” A month before the meltdowns in Fukushima, a top official from the Energy Research Institute of the NDRC said nuclear targets were too aggressive and could put too much pressure on the industry, resulting in compromised safety. But Tian Shujia, who works in nuclear safety at China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, defended the industry. “The safety of China’s nuclear power facilities is guaranteed and China will not abandon its nuclear power plan for fear of slight risks,” he said.

Those who watch China closely know there are reasons to doubt the government’s commitment to public safety. The reflexive cover-up of the deaths of several workers at one of the Olympic sites in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games came under international scrutiny. And concern for safety has not slowed China’s coal industry, which in 2004 accounted for over 35 percent of the world’s production and 80 percent of global coal-mining–related deaths. As of this writing, the government has no plans to implement new nuclear safety measures.

Even so, it is possible that one consequence of the horrific meltdown in Japan will be China’s accelerated development of clean and safe energy. With its huge economy, driven by central planning and aggressive government investment, China is the only country building a green-technology industry on a scale that could bring down global prices of solar panels and wind turbines, making them affordable in the developing world. This should be a key part of the global strategy to keep emissions under 350 parts per million, the maximum threshold recommended by climate scientists. For this to happen, solar and wind energy must become cost-competitive not only with nuclear but with fossil fuels. Given China’s size and unique role as world manufacturer and exporter, it is fair to say that it is the best hope for giving solar and wind energy that boost.

As China goes, so goes the rest of the world.


 

Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer)

By Stan Cox

New Press, 2010

272 pages, $24.95 (Hardcover)

Available on Amazon here and Google books here

Reviewed by Lucia Green-Weiskel

It’s not an obvious choice to read a book about air conditioning. Yet, without getting much attention, climate control is central to our life. Air conditioning influences economic development, community building, medicine, art, culture and even foreign policy. It has allowed people to populate—in increasingly greater numbers—the traditionally uninhabitable parts of the earth’s surface. And some say it will likewise allow us to live in a future where climate change has made even the habitable parts of Planet Earth unlivable.

Everyone is familiar with the climate controlled life. The experience of feeling the hot furnace air of the outdoors hit you in the face when you step out of a store in July. Or the feeling of typing with cold knuckles in a well air conditioned office when it is 98 degrees and muggy outside. What about the opposite experience? I recall tossing and turning all night during an air-conditioning-less summer in Hong Kong. Or the experience of sitting in traffic – windows down and no AC— sun beating down on the car roof as its inhabitants find their legs sticking to the seats. These images are likely familiar to most, but rarely do we take the time to think about the ways that air conditioning has changed our lives and shaped our culture.

As Losing Our Cool explores, air conditioning plays a key role in many of the trends that are central to the American way of life: From McMansions and the increasing size of the average home, ubiquitous central air, sprawling suburbs to a growing commuter culture and mega-malls (and an 87,000 square foot indoor, air-conditioned flea market in Florida). From the emergence of the year-round business dress code to southern migrations (both for people and industry) and even to wars in tropical countries. The thread linking these together is our ability to control indoor climates and the creeping progression of air conditioning from a luxury to a necessity. Indeed the American Way of Life – the DNA-level instinct of each American to build his or her own mini-palace over one’s life time leading to a perennial expansion – to put in the new pool, build the new deck or den or finally buy that second home – is all held ransom to the technology of air conditioning.

But these trends gave birth to other phenomena more worrisome. For example, the “heat island” effect – a condition when urban areas are hotter than surrounding rural areas causing more people to buy air conditioners. This leads to the “heat canyon” effect – when the hot air exhaust from the AC units get trapped in the heat-absorbing concrete of the narrow alley ways and streets of cities causing the already hotter area to become even more hot. Thus, AC is like an addiction – the more we use it, the more we need it.

Heavy reliance on air conditioning causes water shortages and electricity spikes. Most urban brownouts or blackouts happen during the month of August when AC units are operating at full blast. In an effort to use climate controlling technology more efficiently, home owners install extra insulation around doors and windows. While this saves energy, it also stops the natural circulation of fresh air through the building leading to toxic build ups of radon, carbon monoxide, mold and bacteria. Dangerous off-gassing from new shower curtains (have you ever smelled one right out of the packaging?) or household cleaning products like Windex that are demonstrably dangerous for human health, get trapped indoors without windows or cracks through which to escape.

But the focus of Cox’s book is just as much on the social and cultural effects than on health. Controlled climates have resulted in a decline in outdoor activity and community events both spontaneous and planned. Cox points out that home air conditioning reduces the chances that people will end up in a place where they are likely to encounter a neighbor or a stranger, thus eliminating many of the interactions that facilitate the development of community. Sterile, ghost like suburbs are annexing more and more wild land throughout the south. These are housing complexes that are full of people but devoid of community.

Air conditioning has allowed whole cities in the south to exist where otherwise they may have just been a small town. A growing number of children are raised in southern cities where it is too hot to play outdoors during the summer months. Instead they adapt to indoor activities — video games and TV. As a result, childhood and adult obesity are on the rise as people stay indoors huddled in front of their air conditioners while temperatures spike outside.

AC has even changed our foreign policy. It would have been much more difficult to persuade thousands of US soldiers to spend summer months in places like Iraq and Afghanistan – where temps soar to over 110 degrees—if they were not also promised an oasis of AC. Instead of the old fashioned open-air jeep, today’s soldiers drive through Iraqi towns in air conditioned Humvees with windows rolled up and tinted. Without being able to see each other’s faces, it is much harder for the soldiers to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

But Cox is not just a cultural Luddite finding new ways to problematize progress. The book cannot be summarized as a one-sided diatribe against the evils of air conditioning. Similar to other books like those that look at industrial history through the evolution of cement or public health through the history of sewers, Losing Our Cool has a genuine aim to teach us more about ourselves – our society and our culture – and is not just an angry rant designed to make the climatically comfortable feel guilty.

Cox writes with an ethos that to live well is best. The most succinct quote of the book – and the author’s proclaimed personal view – comes on page 109. To the question of whether to use AC, one anonymous apartment resident replied: “We don’t use the air conditioner because it makes it too hot outside.” Cox has a bias but he is not necessarily a poster child of moral rectitude: “Please don’t misread me,” he writes. “I am not an ascetic, a Stoic, a Luddite, a miser, an ‘econag’, or a person of unmeltable moral fiber. I’ve lived this way [without AC] because I prefer it.”

And indeed, we see in the book that climate control is responsible for many of the improvements in our lifestyles: the declines in diseases and infant mortality, the improvement of micro surgery and the production of certain drugs. Indeed, climate control has made much of the economic productivity in places like Phoenix, Houston, and Atlanta possible. “I wrote this book to reopen the debate over whether our indoor environments should be refrigerated,” the author claims in the book’s preface.

Regarding our energy consumption habits, air conditioning is a new angle on an old story: Americans consume more than our proportionate share of energy and it’s unsustainable. But what about developing countries—many of them with tropical climates? A clear flaw of the book is that it is US-centric. If the trends are unsustainable in our American society of over-consumption and extremes, what are the implications of the spread of AC in the developing world? We know that it is there and not here where population growth is exploding and a massive new middle class is emerging. Yet, although one chapter on India attempts to poke at this, we can only wonder what will happen when affluence and its associated demands spread in the rest of the developing world.

Cox does not solve this conundrum but he does articulate the problem well and then proceeds to drop it and all its heft into the reader’s lap. The final chapter offers some solutions for home owners and policy makers—both technology and non-technology-based, which provide some tangible suggestions about where we go from here (and how to find new ways to get through the summer, as the subtitle suggests).

The book succeeds at being informative but not intimidating, urgent without being alarmist, righteous but not obnoxious. We learn not only of the larger trends that illustrate how climate control has changed the arc of our existence but also arms us with possible solutions and new ways of thinking about an old problem. Losing Our Cool is a nerdy beach read, packed with facts, observations and quotes ready to be taken from the page to your next cocktail party. Cox is thorough and persistent. He does his homework so you don’t have to do yours.

More on Electric Vehicles
I was tempted this week to write about Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who was detained while traveling to Hong Kong last week. Or Bob Dylan—who performed last week to a Beijing audience, the first notable Western musician to be given the stage in Beijing since Bjork angered authorities in Shanghai when she called for an independent Tibet at the end of a song, which resulted in  a nationwide shutdown of Youtube. Or perhaps former US Ambassador to China and Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman’s recent harsh remarks about China’s human rights.

But instead I am going to write again about electric vehicles in China. This weekend I was a panelist at the China Energy and Environment Conference at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I presented on the panel called “The Future of Transportation” along with Dr. Pricilla Lu, Chairwoman of Zap electric vehicles and Dr. Hongyan He Oliver a former research fellow at the Kennedy school. Dr. Lu presented an overview of electric vehicles particularly subsidies, and government investment in R&D. One interesting point she made was about the different philosophy between the US and China on subsidizing industries. In China, Dr. Lu said, Chinese companies get reimbursement from the government after certain work is done if it reaches specific criteria. In the US the money is granted to an institution before the work is done. This, Dr. Lu, argues allows Chinese companies to compete more against each other resulting in a better quality product. In the US, states (and banks and companies) that are going bankrupt receive “bail outs.” In China, provinces and companies that are doing well get bonuses from the government. It is the opposite philosophy and from Dr. Lu’s point of view, demonstrates that capitalism works better in China than in the US.

I was in the unusual position of playing the negative card (not my usual role). After Dr. Lu’s talk, and Dr. Oliver’s overview about the rapidly growing growth of the transportation sector and the various demands on government planners and natural resource, I presented the findings from my recent report for the United Nations: electric vehicles aren’t necessarily better for the environment than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. In fact, EVs are only as environmentally friendly as the electricity grid from which they pull their energy. In China, those grids aren’t very clean. With 80% of energy generated from coal, we found that in only two regions in China is it better for the environment to drive an EV than a traditional internal combustion engine. From a life-cycle GHG emission standpoint, electric vehicles generally have a larger carbon footprint than regular gas-driven cars with internal combustion engines.

We compared the all-electric Nissan Leaf with the Nissan Tiida – a car that is comparable in body and chassis and overall user experience. We found that GHG emission changes range from a 23% reduction to a 36% increase over the use of the Tiida. In the graph below the vertical axis is grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilometer driven. The horizontal axis shows the different electricity grids across China: North China Grid, North East Grid, Central China Grid, South China Grid, Hainan Power Grid and the average for the Nissan Leaf. The blue bars represent the GHG footprint of the gas-driven Nissan Tiida.

For electric car enthusiasts, this is not good news. More on the later….

I am currently working on an article about China’s plans to boost nuclear energy — a key factor in China’s effort to “green” its power grids — in the post-Fukushima world for The Nation which I will post in the next couple weeks.

I work for a Chinese NGO. But in that capacity I am frequently asked to contribute analysis and even news stories to US-based publications like The Nation, Huffington Post and Grist, for which I write regularly.

This means that every once in a while I suddenly have to take off my NGO advocacy hat and put on the guise of an investigative journalist.

In the past two years I have noticed some interesting phenomena as a foreigner working in China both as a journalist and an activist. Below are a few observations:

It is hard to find the truth. Many potential sources of information are afraid to talk or provide any insight or information outside of the official party line that is constantly pumped into the media or any other source of public information. Beijing is an efficient dictatorship that has two successful ways of keeping dissenters quiet. The first is though censorship and the second is through extra-legal punishment. While there are ways of getting around the web censors in China (using connection-slowing proxy servers that come with a high monthly fee) most people don’t have the time or perseverance to get beyond the great Chinese firewall. For those that do talk, bad things happen. When I was in China last, a reporter who wrote a story that was critical of the government had thugs break into his house and cut his fingers off the day the report was published. Last week, a blogger who had mentioned he was being followed disappeared and then reappeared later “recovering” in a hospital, although it was not clear from what. This happens so often that Chinese people have adopted a tongue-in-cheek slang word: to disappear is to be “harmonized.”

There is no truth. This is a brick wall that I have run into many times. Often as a journalist, but more critically as an activist. Basic information on simple policies is  just not available or, worse, contradicting. Beijing is a sprawling web of bureaucracies with long and complicated names. For example, when looking for the government body responsible for adopting international standards for measuring greenhouse gases, I was turned away at the Chinese Academy for Environmental Policy at the Center for Climate Policy at the Ministry of Environmental Protection and told that instead I should go to the China Standard Certification Center of the National Institute of Standardization under the Standardization Administration of China which is part of the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.  A knowledgeable colleague told me that actually I should go to the Department of Climate Change at the National Development and Reform Commission. And there is also the National Energy Saving Center, the Energy Research Institute and many others. Once, a red faced high level member of the EPA, over lunch in Beijing, told me he was so fed up with Chinese bureaucracy he felt like slamming his head against a wall.

US media misses all the good moments. Somehow the mainstream media misses all the good stories in China. For example a non-existent Cairo-inspired “protest” in February was attended almost entirely by foreign correspondents and police (but no protesters). One observer noted: “No one shouted slogans, no one held signs, it was just a group of people standing around photographing each other.” Yet, the place where civil society is stirring – in the environmental NGO community, there has been little coverage.

There are surprising moments of clarity. Once in a while, something happens which counters all of the above statements. For example, last week, I was trying to find information about whether water shortages would impose a barrier to large scale expansion of nuclear power capacity in China. None of my NGO contacts could answer the question. At the bottom of a Google rabbit hole I found some old pages of press releases issued by the Chinese Ministry of Water. They were translated into English and full of ridiculous typos but on each one there was a contact name and phone number for Minister of Water himself. I logged onto Skype and called the number. An eager and cheerful voice picked up after the first ring and answered every question I had quite satisfactorily.

No one seems to be able to predict China’s behavior. After the Soviets broke diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1956, many China experts predicted that Communist China would collapse, but they were wrong. Again, after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, foreign observers predicted that China would break apart like the Soviet Union and that it couldn’t withstand the economic isolation that happened as a result of the Tiananmen incident. Again, this didn’t pan out. In the 90s when China first started hitting 10% annual growth rates, economists swore that it couldn’t last beyond a couple years. But they were wrong. Something propels China forward that no one seems to have put their finger on.

I will let you know if I find it.

Both the US and China have pledged to put 1 million electric vehicles on the road in the next decade (see here and here). But are electric vehicles really better for the environment?

There is a common misconception that electric vehicles are carbon-neutral and that their impact on the environment is as non-offensive as the quiet sound of their humming engines.

But electricity doesn’t come from nowhere. To have a live outlet, tons of dirty coal (or sometimes natural gas or uranium) must be consumed at a power plant, generating electricity which then must be stored and transported to a building or charging station. This process is in and of itself a carbon intensive one. In the United States and China, the vast majority of the nation’s electricity is generated by coal, which, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has a much higher global warming potential than conventional vehicle fuels like diesel or gasoline.

So when we promote electric cars are we just shifting the emissions from the tail pipe to the power plant?

In the last three months, I have worked with my colleagues in China at the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation on a report commissioned by the United Nations on the life-cycle carbon impact of electric vehicles.

What we found may surprise many.

We found that pure battery electric vehicles may not always improve environmental impact of transport as much as we would like to expect; in fact, in some regions, electric vehicles are not an environmentally friendlier technology, particularly in terms of GHG emissions, because of the source of electricity which powers them.

Except for one region in China, compared with conventional vehicles, electric vehicles do not significantly reduce emissions – from a lifecycle point of view. After all, electric vehicles are an energy conversion and not a clean energy technology.

In order to generate data that reflects the lifecycle GHG emissions we look at the environmental impacts of a sequence of events in the fuel or battery’s life. For electric vehicles, we look at the emissions associated with the entire life of the battery from the mining of raw materials such as lithium, to the transportation and storage of energy to the disposal of waste material associated with the battery pack. This is what we call “Mine-to-Pack” emissions. For a conventional vehicle, we measure the emissions generated during the fuel’s life cycle, from the oil well to the tank, or “Well-to-Tank” emissions.

This analysis points to a clear implication for policy: Electric grids must be made more efficient or be more reliant on renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar.  This means replacing coal plants with renewable energy on a large scale, producing what many call a “smart grid.” If renewables aren’t commercially viable, then we need to install new technology to burn coal more cleanly or capture the emissions that come from coal. In the US and China (the world’s biggest coal-consuming countries) these are existing areas for government-led research and development.  But there is still a long way to go before so-called clean coal or renewable energy can be economically feasible in order to remake the electricity grids in either country to something we can call “smart.” Our report for the UN adds evidence to an existing pile that electricity grid reform should be priorities for both Washington and Beijing.

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