October 2010

When I tell people I am an environmentalist, a common first response is to talk technology: blow-your-mind apps for electric cars, solar panel-paved highways, straddle buses and bullet trains. But the essential technological logic we need to save the planet has been with us since human beings learned how to cooperate: public transportation.  Unglamorous as it may be, the task at hand for environmentalist is not so much to celebrate the new, but to preserve and protect the old.

For environmentalists who have learned how to prioritize (ie. let’s skip the green washing and do what really matters) it is the transportation sector in the United States that is first in line for a major government-energized facelift.  Over one-quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from the transportation sector.

Since we know we can’t stop people and goods from moving around, we need to focus on finding ways to get people and goods to move around in low-carbon ways. But in many parts of the country, the high-carbon personal car or truck is the only option or at least the most efficient (time-wise) option. Although some transit systems are able to sustain their services and in some cases make small expansions or improvements (the Boston T, DC Metro) many are under used (Los Angles, Houston Metro, Boston T, used by just 11% of the population, and Atlanta MARTA –used by just 4%), don’t adequately cover the locations of commuters (San Francisco BART), are dirty (NYC MTA, well basically all of them except the DC Metro), suffer from delays or service cuts (ok, all transit systems), are getting more expensive (again, all). Only four transit systems in America have at least some portion that operates 24 hours a day. While cars and cell phones are technologically reconceived practically every year, public transit across America hasn’t seen any technological leaps in decades.

Even in New York City, home of the oldest and largest public transit system which services the most passengers in the country, things are heading south. Despite improvements for lowest-carbon transport (Thanks for the bike lanes, Mr. Bloomberg!), New York City’s government has raised the cost of riding the subway and buses for the fourth time in the last five years, causing some loyal riders to turn to other options. And the fare hikes are part of a package deal that also includes service cuts.

In short, the general trajectory of public transit in America bends toward a lower quality and more expensive product.

As Paul Krugman so aptly argued in an October New York Times column, people are losing their appetites for large-scale infrastructure projects, as illustrated by New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie’s recent decision to stop construction on a commuter train tunnel that would connect northern New Jersey to Manhattan. However, an appetite for large-scale infrastructure projects is exactly what we will need to overhaul and improve our cities public transit systems.

As has become the theme in this blog, let’s look at the comparison with China:. The Chinese government is investing aggressively in public transportation, precisely in an effort to keep people off the roads especially during rush hours. Subway fares have gone down under a government low-fare program from 8RMB ($1.20) to 2RMB (30 cents) over the last few years. Instead of service cuts, lines are expanding rapidly. China’s $1.4 trillion stimulus package helped accelerate the development of a new generation of high-speed passenger rail lines throughout China’s populous east coast.  China, which is in the business of setting records, surpassed the world train speed record when one train hit 416.6 kilometers (about 259 miles) per hour.  As one would expect, the Field of Dreams quote rings true: if you build it, they will come. On April 30, 2010, a record 6.4 million people (the link is in Chinese but you can read the numbers) rode the Beijing subway (one of which was me!)

The lesson: shiny new technology is great, but if you care about the environment please lobby for, vote for, give money to, talk about, promote and keep yourself informed about politicians and government agencies that support good old fashioned public transportation.  Because the future of American transit, and therefore whether America can pull its own weight in the global fight against climate change, is in their hands.

By Lucia Green-Weiskel

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo’s life story is powerful and compelling and deserve to be celebrated. Liu had a front row seat to recent history’s most grim and hopeful moments. As a young boy he grew up during the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed economic project based on scientific quackery and delusional egoism that resulted in the death of 30 million people. He was a teenager with intellectual parents at a time when academics were forced to the countryside for reeducation through manual labor and when, in some cases, cannibalism was practiced against academics, viewed as “party enemies.” Later in life Liu earned a Master’s degree and then a PhD, both in China. He was moved to return from overseas to his native China in 1989 to support the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy rallies. But when he arrived, he helped students leave the square instead of continue the protest and saved many lives as a result. In 2008, he drafted a new constitution for China, Charter 08, based on democracy and human rights, which landed him in prison for the fourth time and where he is expected to remain until 2020.

But Liu’s legacy is not having “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations,” as it is written in the Will from Alfred Nobel.  Instead, Liu’s prize may aggravate US-China relations in a way that moves the countries toward conflict and away from peace.

China scholars have long been vigilant about the prospects of war between the US and China – cold or hot. One thread of consistency that runs through the motley group of collision-course scenarios has to do with the question of norms (cultural, political and societal), pitting the individualism of John Locke that is the bedrock of the American way of life against the collectivism and societal harmony of Confucius that underpins Chinese society. In the subtle language of diplomacy, Liu’s prize is a shot across the bow – a statement that says Western-style democracy reigns supreme, America calls the shots on what is and isn’t “peace.”

From China’s perspective, proponents of democracy and human rights have gone beyond their mandate to protect individuals and instead are serving components of a larger agenda of the Western liberal elite to destabilize the Chinese Communist Party. In China one often hears discussions of human rights and democratization coupled with phrases like “ulterior motives” and “US imperialism.” Indeed in a country still governed by a communist party, “democratization” and “regime change” are functionally identical concepts.

As long as China views the human rights discourse as Western hypocrisy— an ideological weapon in a geo-strategic struggle that pits a declining US against a rising China – we must ask, what exactly does “peace” mean in the context of the Nobel Prize, when it is awarded to an individual who embodies that ideological weapon?

Historically speaking, the Chinese government doesn’t respond well to high profile, public challenges to its human rights record. Public shaming tends to drive Chinese leaders to impose harsher crackdowns. For example, in the spring of 2008, Icelandic singer Bjork performed to a packed audience in Shanghai. At the end of “Declare Independence” (a song she claims is about the Farrow Islands) she whispered in short breathy exhales “Tibet, Tibet.” Recordings circulated widely on YouTube. Hours later YouTube was added to the list of restricted sights in China. No more could young Chinese access the cornucopia of pop culture, the lifeline to new music, viral videos, notable speeches, and, well, just about everything. Instead of punishing the Chinese government, Bjork’s actions punished the very people she would want to empower: China’s youth. Two years later, there is still no YouTube in China.

Likewise, Liu’s prize may lead to fewer political freedoms for citizens of China. Already there has been an escalation in internet censorship and threat of prison time for Chinese who mention Liu’s name in emails or chat rooms. (Last week, to avoid emails to Chinese friends “disappearing” new codes were invented like “N0b3l P3ace Pr1ze”.)

The other point that is important to remember is that Liu’s prize is a bit anachronistic. The fever for western-style democracy has passed in China and is increasingly unhip. Most young people see the American model of elections as a messy, morally-indulgent and entangling procedure that results in paralysis and can be easily corrupted. Young Chinese hardly see the US as the moral authority on human rights after such memorable policies as Guantanamo, illegal detentions and torture and a popular supported war in which 100,000 civilians were killed. Chinese youth are increasingly standing by their own country’s record of non-intervention (China is the only great power that has never colonized another country) and empowerment through economic development (China’s communist party policies have lifted 30 million people out of poverty — half the world’s poverty reduction since 1945).

Finally, Liu’s influence (if he even has any in China) will be undermined by more compelling political change. During the same week that Liu become the Nobel laureate, two notable moments indicated (for those who were paying attention) that there are political stirrings toward liberalization that may hold more promise, and be more realistic, than the brand of revolution offered by Liu.

Last week at the UN climate change conference in Tianjin, an event of historic proportions quietly slipped by the main stream media. Chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua held a press conference in which he enthusiastically praised the work of the non-governmental organizations in China. This is significant because ten years ago nothing in China was non-governmental. The rise in both visibility and influence of Chinese non-governmental organizations is an authentic and homegrown movement toward pluralism and political participation.

In another apparent push toward pluralism, in a recent interview on CNN, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also made history: “[T]he people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible,” he said. “I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people.”

Wen closes his interview by saying to interviewer, Fareed Zakaria: “I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.” It may be that Wen and Xie’s comments are early indicators of significant political liberalization in China – that is if not just Zakaria, but the entire Western world can see it. Because it is more likely their traditions, and not as much Liu’s, that will lead to political change in China.

By Lucia Green-Weiskel

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held an intersessional meeting in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin last week. (Note: Although I am listed as both attending and hosting an event in Tianjin, I did not attend the conference (I had class) and wrote this based on other people’s reporting and the UNFCCC webcasts available here. I will be in Cancun in December for COP16, though).

For those of you who are unfamiliar, the UNFCCC climate change meetings or COPs are an ongoing series gatherings in which world leaders or their representatives come together in the framework of the United Nations to try to hash out a global agreement to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The last such meeting was the COP15 held in Copenhagen in December of 2009, after which many people walked away scratching their heads at the ten day conference’s grand achievement: a three-page (1,400 word), non-legally binding “Copenhagen Accord” which includes no course of action, no reduction targets and was not signed but “taken note of” by members of the COP15. Most called it a failure. Some went farther and called it a “suicide pact.”

But the story most people remember from Copenhagen was the, at times, dramatic breakdown in relations between the US and Chinese delegations. At one point Chinese vice foreign minister, He Yafei, said of US chief negotiator, Todd Stern: “I don’t want to say that the gentleman is ignorant,” but he either “lacks common sense” or is “extremely irresponsible.”

In Tianjin the vitriol and gridlock between the world’s largest emitters continued. Chinese chief negotiator Su Wei accused Stern of misunderstanding the meaning of the Copenhagen Accord and rejected accusations that China is acting in a delinquent fashion. In fact, Su said, the Americans are the ones who are “doing nothing” on climate change. The Americans, he continued, issued the “first blow” to the Copenhagen Accord and is like a zhubajie zhao jinzi, li wai bu shi ren or 猪八戒照镜子,里外不是人– roughly: a pig preening itself in a mirror who is not the same person inside and out. It doesn’t quite translate to English, but let’s just say this is not a nice thing to say and implies both gluttony and hypocrisy.

So what should we make of all this? (Let’s hope Todd Stern has a supportive family that can help him restore his sense of self worth after all this abuse.) Maybe the US should try to understand the reasons for China’s concern, take a leadership role and chart the moral high ground, and meet the Chinese half way.

What do I mean by this? As I reported from Copenhagen last year, the main sticking point between the US and China is this rather technical issue of MRV – the methodologies and monitoring processes for Measuring, Reporting and Verification of emission reductions. The US says it will not accept any Chinese reductions unless they are monitored and verified by qualified international inspectors. China resists inspection and instead wants to implement MRV on its own terms using domestic institutions. The US continues to focus the blame on China and frequently criticizes China for not implementing MRV.

But in the last year, as US rhetoric on this issue remained steady, China made huge progress on emissions cutting while the US actually slipped backwards. Five provinces and eight cities in China were designated by the government as Low Carbon Pilot Zones, which include extensive MRV projects. The city of Tianjin is itself a poster child of Chinese progress: it houses China’s first carbon exchange and some of the most advanced carbon capture and sequestration projects. (Most visitors to the conference arrived by the Beijing-Tianjin bullet train, part of the 13,000 kilometers of rail lines planned by 2012, which can go over 200 miles per hour.)

In the US, climate legislation to create a cap and trade program has been declared dead and we have no national program for mandatory MRV.

Meanwhile,  the US and China emit about 19% and 22% of the world’s emissions respectively, but the average US citizen emits five times more emissions than the average Chinese.  And almost one-quarter of China’s emissions are directly sourced to products that are made for export and consumed in America or Europe. It is hard not to see that the US is implicated the most in the climate problem.

Does that add up to grounds for US leadership on climate change?  Both countries should be taking bolder moved, but, at least for now, the US might want to tend to its own house before it criticizes its host. Next stop for Stern and Su will be Cancun in November.

By Lucia Green-Weiskel

In the last couple of months, it has become clear that climate change, one of the central issues of President Obama campaign in 2008, has been all but forgotten.

Over the summer, despite a lot of talk that lead us to believe the opposite, we were told that there would be no climate bill this year that will put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Climate legislation is now officially dead. This came on the heels of last year’s UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP15 meeting in Copenhagen in which 110 heads of state met with the intention of striking a global deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions failed to produce a deal. Obama and his US delegation failed to make any new commitments and were seen by critics as an obstacle to progress rather than a help. The story is slightly brighter at the EPA, where a host of new regulatory powers will help reduce emissions (they don’t take effect until 2011). But it doesn’t go far enough. Both the US congress and the international community through the UNFCCC must take firm action to fight climate change before we will see any meaningful changes. Both bodies of governance, in large part, are dependent on cues from Obama’s leadership.

Going back two years, it is striking to see the change of Obama’s tone. Fresh from his success on Election Day 2008, Obama addressed a group of environmentalists assembled at Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Governors’ Global Climate Summit held in Los Angeles on November 18 (I was there with my colleagues from iCET and was interviewed by This American Life about the address). He said with a tone of assertion and confidence, “Few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear.” People swooned and became giddy. What a transition from the Bush years! He continued, “Once I take office, you can be sure that the United States will engage vigorously and help lead the world in a new era to combat climate change….Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option.”

But, ‘delay’ is actually the best word one can use to describe the Obama climate policy as the first half of his first term nears a close. And meanwhile, as was predicted by climate scientists, greenhouse gas emissions are accumulating in the atmosphere at rapidly increasing rates causing potentially catastrophic changes to our global and local climate. For example, July of this year was very close to being the hottest month ever recorded in New York (if it were not for the last day of July being significantly cooler, it would have set a record).

The problem with Obama’s negligence in this case goes beyond not fulfilling a campaign promise. By not acting right away, and “engaging vigorously” in climate change politics, Obama has missed crucial opportunities. These missed opportunities will weigh heavily on Obama as he assembles his reelection campaign:

  1. Green technology & innovation – By failing to set positive policy signals, innovation in green technology continues to lag behind other countries such as China, Japan and the EU.
  2. New jobs – Without firm policies, the green jobs that were promised on Obama’s campaign trail will not materialize.
  3. Foreign policy – Leadership on climate change could smooth out rough edges in Obama’s foreign policy, especially with China, which is waiting for American leadership on the issue.
  4. Multilateralism – Obama promised a more multilateral and diplomatic foreign policy, yet he has failed to cooperate with other countries at the UNFCCC.
  5. Demonstrating that he is not controlled by Big Oil – Obama criticized Bush on this point, yet so far has not departed from his predecessor in this area.

In November 2010, the UNFCCC will host the next in the series of international climate talks, the COP16 to be held in Cancun, Mexico. Even without legislation in Congress, Obama can and must make some meaningful commitment to reduce emissions in the US before this event. Two ways he could do this would be to enforce Executive Order 13514, which requires federal agencies to reduce their emissions and tell the EPA to reduce require stricter GHG emission reductions for the biggest emitters and to regulate all emitters (not just the biggest ones) under the Clean Air Act. Let’s hope he acts quickly because November is not that far off.

Oct 5 Note: I posted this two weeks ago on Peter Beinart’s Writing Politics class blog. UPDATE: Obama has decided to put solar panels on the White House.

See here.

Sept 25th, 2010

by Lucia Green-Weiskel

This week, as I roamed the halls of the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, I heard a rumor that Bill Clinton has adopted a vegan diet. Many observers of the meeting noted he was looking healthy and  slim.

At my home computer that night I confirmed the rumor. He described his diet as essentially vegan except for fish on rare occasions. His reason? First it was to lose weight for his daughter Chelsea’s wedding in August, but in an interview with Larry King, he said it was also a response to his bypass surgery.  He said, 82% of the people since 1996 who have gone on plant-based diets have broken up the calcium deposit around their hearts and reduced their cholesterol, putting them at less risk for future life-threatening heart problems. In short, like most people, he wants to be around for the grandkids.

But we can also place Clinton’s food habits in a larger context. According to a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, meat eating causes nearly one-fifth of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Meat production in general is very energy-intensive. Producing animal feed requires lots of water and nitrogen fertilizer and the animals (especially cows) release methane gas, which is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a climate-warming gas. Like the chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Dr Rajendra Pachauri – an outspoken vegetarian primarily for environmental reasons, Clinton’s dietary change can set an example about how to be a more ecologically-friendly citizen.

Lifestyle qualities of the rich and powerful in this country have had significant influence on its population. Take for example, the business-casual fad brought in by Steve Jobs or Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who defined woman’s style for more than a decade.

Attractive, young and confident, the Obama’s are perfect candidates for setting lifestyle trends that are underpinned by larger causes. Early in the administration, Michelle planted an organic garden with 55 varieties of vegetables on the White House lawn with the hope that it would teach families and especially children about the importance of eating organic, locally-grown vegetables, both for health and environmental reasons.

President Obama could set his own precedent on sustainable lifestyle choices. Environmental activist, Bill McKibben, and his organization, 350.org, have launched a campaign to install solar panels on the White House. Jimmy Carter had them installed during his administration, but then they were torn down by Ronald Reagan. So far, President Obama has said “no” to solar panels. Perhaps Obama can learn a lesson from Clinton and set an example by making environmentally-friendly changes to his lifestyle.

By Lucia Green-Weiskel

In the first week of September, the Steelworkers Union filed a complaint to the US Trade Representative against China for subsidizing its renewable energy industry in a way that is illegal according to the World Trade Organization. The complaint is 5,800 pages long (or 80 moving boxes in printed form) and includes Chinese violations such as using illegal land grants and low-interest loans and other measures to produce the technology needed to generate renewable energy at artificially low prices.

But those who criticize China’s subsidies are taking a dangerously short-sighted perspective and failing to realize that while individual countries may balk at subsidies, the world as a whole desperately needs them.

Take for example, the opinion of New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman as it is expressed in his September 20th op-ed. He notes that the subsidies are part of China’s broader effort to create artificial values, in order to favor China’s domestic industries over their foreign counterparts and boost exports. Krugman says that China’s artificial values may be good for certain firms in China and the US  in the short term, but in the long term it is bad for the US economy as a whole because it results in a huge trade surplus and a loss of jobs to China.

Moreover, he adds, US officials are spineless about the issue (leaving it to the slightly less submissive Steelworkers Union to file the complaint) because they fear the Chinese will stop buying bonds, unload US debt and cause the value of the dollar to fall, or, worse, they fear retaliation from Chinese businesses.

But as an economist, Krugman is not allowing himself to see the non-economic side of the picture. The full impact of the cost-benefit analysis of China’s subsidies can’t be understood by simply plugging a variable into an equation. China’s renewable energy subsidies have created the only existing solution we have to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change in developing and developed countries alike: namely, cheap and plentiful green technology that is widely available.  And there is no reason why both countries can’t benefit from these developments.

Here is some context. Ten years ago, many officials in China thought that climate change was a hoax – an invented concept designed by Western countries to undermine the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Today, China‘s leaders have committed that country to some of the most ambitious carbon-reducing policies in the world. To meet those targets, China has become a leader in wind and solar energy, biofuels and public transportation and is the only country in the world that is building an industry of green technology at a scale that could bring down the price of goods like electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines, making them affordable in the developing world. None of these advances would have been made without subsidies and other help from the government.

From another perspective, by subsidizing green technology, China is doing America and the world a huge favor. In a world where carbon footprinting, energy auditing and GHG inventories are becoming increasingly popular (and in this country, mandated by the EPA), companies need to buy competitively priced green technology in order to comply with regulations. In our globalized world, many of the companies that are reporting and reducing their GHG emissions are huge US-based multinationals – like Wal-mart –  with operations and sales all over the world. These are the companies who are being nudged by either voluntary or mandatory regulations to take the first shaky step into greenhouse gas regulation and will be the first companies to be required to simultaneously reduce their energy use and increase their level of production. Access to cheap, plentiful green technology will be crucial in this transition. And China is the most competitive seller.

For China this service is a thankless endeavor. China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (although it still ranks far below the US on a per capita and historic basis). But, almost one-quarter of China’s emissions come from products that are made for export. And that number will grow if China takes on the role of the world’s factory for green technology. The manufacturing of wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells, biofuels and electric vehicles, is in and of itself, a carbon-intensive undertaking. So, as China contributes to the world’s ability to have access to renewable and “green” sources of energy, its own local pollution problems grow. The US, by relying on China to produce this and other carbon-intensive goods, can keep its air and waterways relatively clean.

My solution to the SWU/China clash is to subsidize development of renewable energy and its associated technologies in both countries. Then we can keep both American and Chinese workers in their jobs and ensure we have the technological capacity we need to transition to a green economy. It is important to remember, all energy industries have depended on subsidies to survive. Just look at the nuclear and fossil fuel industry in the US and Europe. If we want to take renewable sources of energy seriously, it must be subsidized, too.

Perhaps it is the WTO rule in this case that is off base. The WTO regulation at issue here states that countries can subsidize renewable energy that is sold domestically (both the US and China do this) but it cannot subsidize the production of those same technologies if they are made for export. Perhaps there can be some category of trade that rises above the tit-for-tat trade policies of the WTO and takes into consideration the global perspective. Let’s have both countries invest in the new green economy with no handicaps – competition between China and the US will only ensure better quality and faster production of green technology — and that is the real goal here. After all, if we are all underwater in 50 years,  who will be left to pore over 5,800 page documents to calculate China’s trade violations?

by Lucia Green-Weiskel

An artist friend of mine was visiting from out of town last week. I took her to the Chelsea art galleries – our ritual when we have time together in New York.

Some of the art demonstrated clear talent and skill, other galleries I found clearly provocative and obscure. I was getting accustomed to transitioning between different styles, approaches, colors and materials as we walked from gallery to gallery. So when I entered the gallery at 511 West 25th Street and saw a show room of Tesla electric automobiles I thought it was some clever artist’s idea of ironic commentary.

But, more shocking to me than the painting of the Holy Virgin Mary made from elephant dung, was the fact that the electric car, the symbol of the new green economy, the longest-promised innovation of the 20th century, is now in the 21st century sitting in an art gallery. How can this giddy hunk of aerodynamic steel that looks like art (and is priced like art) actually be, as Thomas Friedman puts it, the “pivotal” piece of the new green economy?

Not that I didn’t admire the Tesla. It was a beautiful thing to look at.

One might argue that Teslas are in art galleries because they are a high-end car (starting at $101,500). But this is just the extreme case of the dominant trend for electric cars in America. Instead of the “car of the people” – EVs are often prohibitively expensive, rarely available second-hand and difficult to find. (Starting price for US-made hybrid and electric cars: Ford Fusion hybrid $27,950, Lexus GS hybrid $57,450, Chevy Volt EV $40,280, Cadillac Escalade hybrid $73,425, or their foreign counter-parts, the Toyota Prius hybrid, $22,800 or the Nissan Leaf EV $32,780.)

I couldn’t help but think back to my tour of a Chinese electric car factory just two months prior, of the BYD (or Build Your Dreams) automobile plant in Shenzhen. A young enthusiastic worker named Ren Miao met me at the gate with a warm grin wearing a lab coat. As we toured the immaculate facility, with white floors and walls, high ceilings and a constant flow of smiling purposeful workers all dressed in the same suit bustling to and fro, I thought I was in a dream in which I had sneaked into some secret government laboratory. Ren explained to me the BYD founding principles: equality (between employees — even employee and boss), innovation, passion and factuality. Their goal is to produce electric vehicles, solar panels and other low-carbon technologies and make them available at a cost advantage over their fossil-fuel competitors. He showed me a mini diagram set under glass in the center of their show room of what the complex will look like in five years: completely run off of solar and wind power, with staff dorms, recreation, fitness centers and the outside world all linked with state-of-the-art public transit supplemented with all electric taxis and tree-lined bike lanes. I can only find one word to describe it: utopian.

The difference between the American and Chinese electric car company has everything to do with both countries respective government policies. China generously subsidizes all aspects of the EV industry including the developers, manufacturers and consumers as well as the development of a network of charging stations at feasible distances from one another across China. As a result, EV and hybrid cars in China range from $15,000-$22,000 without consumer subsidies, and up to half that with the subsidies.

The US meanwhile is subsidizing battery technology and consumers get a tax credit with the purchase of an EV or hybrid car ($7,500 for EVs and $2,500 for hybrids). But it’s not enough. We must also adopt the utopian attitude. Like his counterpart in China, Obama must approach the EV market as a whole and consider subsidies of all aspects of the industry, including manufacturing and building charging stations. For the US to stay afloat in the economy of the 21st century, Obama must think and plan for large scale change. As Thomas Friedman says, “the country that replaces gasoline-powered vehicles with electric-powered vehicles — in an age of steadily rising oil prices and steadily falling battery prices — will have a huge cost advantage and independence from imported oil.”

One final point which China seems to have figured out but the US hasn’t: The shift to an electric transport economy is not just about producing the cars and charging stations. It is also about revolutionizing the electricity grid from which the cars will pull their energy. Unless the grid is energized from renewable sources, electric cars will only move pollution from the tailpipe to the smoke stack. Again, through central planning and aggressive government investment, China is advancing plans for a “smart grid” which depends on renewable sources for 20% of its energy (solar and wind in this case, China does not include hydropower as renewable).  And meanwhile in the US, wind and solar technology, for the large part, remains a DIY boutique industry.

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