April 2011


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.

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