The China Experiment

/ by Mara Hvistendahl /

Inside the revolution to green the biggest nation on earth.

Linxia is not the sort of place that figures large in accounts of China’s economic miracle. A town of 140,000 people in the mountains of western Gansu, China’s second poorest province, its dusty streets teem with people hawking vegetables, grains, and live animals for slaughter from the backs of carts. Like much of western China, it is remarkably diverse: Hui Muslims gather at pagoda-trimmed mosques, Han businesspeople preside over small shops, and Tibetan nomads barrel through town on motorcycles. But vibrant street commerce has not brought economic progress to the area, where annual income is below 1,100 yuan ($142), less than a third of the national rural average. Talk to any townsperson at length, and he will apologize for Linxia’s lack of development.

What Linxia has in abundance, however, is sunlight—and, in ways that might seem incongruous with the area’s economic conditions, people are putting it to good use. At Yuansheng Green Solar Power, a small store on a street otherwise devoted to hardware and tools, peasants living in remote areas where electricity is expensive stop to pick up solar water heaters and talk technology with owner Ding Yanlin. A few blocks away is the two-story Solar Supermarket, and spread out around the commercial district are three other independent solar-equipment dealers. In the rolling hills outside of town, Golden Yak-brand solar generator kits—small 20-watt photovoltaic panels providing enough energy for two high-efficiency bulbs—light the tents of nomads who are not hooked up to the grid. Solar generators, heaters, and cookers have become so popular in parts of rural Gansu that families have started giving them as dowry.

It’s a sign that, along with a quickly growing need for energy, an environmental consciousness is building here. Locals who installed solar heaters cite a desire to curb pollution as a reason for going green. At a time when China is grappling with major issues of energy security, environmental degradation, and growing consumption, can it capitalize on its growing adoption of renewable energy and engender a wide-ranging green revolution? 

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

The litany of environmental challenges that China faces is shocking, even by the enormous proportions of all things Chinese. The International Energy Agency predicts that this year or next China will surpass the United States as the world’s No. 1 producer of greenhouse gases. As 14,000 new cars take to the road every day and a new coal-fired plant opens every week, China’s CO2 emissions are on course to triple by 2050; the country’s newest coal plants alone will cancel out the global emissions reductions sought by the Kyoto Protocol in the next five years. The glaciers on the Tibetan plateau, the source of the three major rivers that supply much of China’s water, are shrinking by 7 percent a year, causing droughts and water shortages across the western part of the country. And in cities throughout China, temperatures this winter hit record highs.

So far, though, China has been unwilling to take a proactive stance on the global environment. During deliberations over the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Chinese delegation staged long filibusters aimed at toning down the report’s language, voting with Saudi Arabia to soften the report’s assertion that climate change was “very likely” caused by human activities. When the report was released in February, China’s official reaction was to blame the West, with its foreign ministry spokeswoman maintaining that “developed countries bear an unshirkable responsibility” for climate change. Just weeks later, when the National People’s Congress convened in March, Chinese Academy of the Sciences scholar Huo Yuping appeared before the body to assert that after conducting extensive research on climate change, he had concluded that it is not caused by humans.

But while they play international politics with climate change, China’s leaders have enacted an ambitious law requiring that renewable sources account for 15 percent of the nation’s power by 2020—up from 7 percent now. President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious society” calls for a balance between economic growth and environmental protection, with China’s current five-year plan making the environment a priority.

The mass adoption of solar power—the Chinese have purchased 35 million solar water heaters, more than the rest of the world combined—is only part of the equation. China is also encouraging investment and research in wind farms, bioenergy, and fuel cell and hybrid vehicles, and aiming to improve energy efficiency by a sizeable 4 percent annually. “It’s historic,” says Kishan Khoday, head of the United Nations Development Program’s energy and environment program in China. “It’s going to take efforts on all angles of the issue to get it done.”

If China fails, the implications for the rest of the world could be grave. Sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide from China already travel across the Pacific, causing acid rain in North America and Europe. Last year in Japan, two city governments issued formal warnings about pollution from the country’s western neighbor.

Environmental conditions are already approaching apocalyptic in a country where coal provides 70 percent of the country’s power. Chinese scientists have predicted that the Yangtze River will die by 2011, and with two-thirds of other rivers polluted, more than 340 million Chinese lack access to clean drinking water. An estimated 400,000 Chinese die of pollution every year. By the government’s own estimates released in December 2006, climate change is occurring in China at alarming rates, with temperatures due to increase by 1.3 to 2.1 degrees Celsius by 2020. China is unveiling forward-thinking policies and pushing alternative energy because it has no other choice.

Within China, a growing grassroots environmental movement is calling for action to address years of industrial pollution. If China’s peasants get hooked on renewable power before they join the middle classes, and if its existing middle classes can learn to conserve energy before they can afford two cars, the country could effectively leapfrog over the West in developing sustainable energy and growth. If China can harness this potential, and reduce oil and coal power in its national drive for sustainable energy, it could usher in a new standard of scientifically-informed economic development.

Physicist C. S. Kiang left his native Shanghai to study at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1962. Over the next few decades he became one of the leading atmospheric scientists in the US, eventually heading up Georgia Tech’s program in the field. In 1998 the Chinese government called him back to advise the country on cleaning its air, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. He’s now dean of the College of Environmental Sciences at Peking University.

Discussing China’s environmental problems, he speaks both with the curious distance of a returnee, inevitably slipping into the pronoun “they” when talking about China, and with the candor made possible by an American passport. “For the past 25 years, China’s leaders have been putting economic development first,” he says. “They didn’t do much about the environment. As a result, they industrialized in 25 years while the rest of the world did it in over a century. But now the environment has reached a critical point.”

Kiang is one of hundreds of Western-educated Chinese scientists to return to China in the past decade, lured by attractive packages and opportunities for quick advancement. The government overtly courts experts like Kiang, while younger scientists return under the Distinguished Young Scientist and One Hundred Talent programs, which offer US-level salaries. The Chinese call these returnees “sea turtles,” a reference to the behavior of the iconic resident of the South China Sea, which returns to its birthplace to produce its next generation after years away.

With people like Kiang bridging East and West, crucial awareness of global climate issues is penetrating China’s political leadership, who realize that environmental damage threatens their economic miracle. Last year the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) began assessing the country’s “green GDP” by factoring environmental costs into calculations of economic progress. In January scholars from the Chinese Academy of the Sciences and the Ministry of Science and Technology released a report warning that China remains 100th on a list of 118 countries for “ecological modernization”—the same ranking it held three years ago.

Much as Americans did in the 1970s, the Chinese are waking up to issues of pollution, the environment, and the role of grassroots action. Jia Feng, deputy director of SEPA’s Center for Environmental Education and Communications, suggests China is taking to environmentalism at an even earlier stage than America did. “Some economists say that only when per capita GDP reaches $10,000 per person can people finally afford to start worrying about the environment. China isn’t even at $2,000 per person,” he says, “but already in our elementary- and middle-school texts, in our movies, in the media, environmental protection is a huge issue. Everyone knows about it.”

The words “environmental protection” and “green” (“huanbao” and “lüse” in Mandarin) are now buzzwords appearing on advertisements for everything from housing to food. Newspapers like the China Green Times have helped focus media attention on environmental issues. While science literacy is still lower than in the West, education levels are rising. China’s vast population now takes interest in issues like water pollution because they’ve become impossible to ignore.

Last year SEPA received an average of 1,650 complaints a day to its website. The local press, once silent on the environment, now reports daily Air Pollution Index results for major cities. Throughout China, educational campaigns with slogans like “Work together to stop CO2” are being staged, many of them at the grassroots level. In its latest program, SEPA is giving peasants cameras, instructing them to photograph local examples of green “leapfrogging”—when technology allows for skipping steps in development. To encourage replication, the photos will later be shown in a traveling exhibition.

Increasingly, the Chinese people are pushing their government on environmental issues. When Huo Yuping denied human responsibility for climate change at the National People’s Congress, the Chinese registered scathing criticism online, recommending, between insults, that their leaders be forced to watch An Inconvenient Truth. “Anyone who has really done scientific research should know what reality is,” one wrote. “Is he a representative for the coal mine lobby?!” wrote another.

In the village of Huaxi, in eastern Zhejiang province, peasants took notice when, following the construction of 13 pesticide and fertilizer plants, babies were born deformed and the river started to run brown. After unsuccessfully petitioning the government, the villagers erected roadblocks in April 2005 to prevent shipments from leaving the plants. When the authorities arrived to remove the roadblocks, the villagers overturned at least a dozen police cars and stripped officers of their uniforms.

If more Chinese see their local pollution and environmental action as part of a national and even international environmental movement, it could become imperative for the Chinese government to implement wide-reaching green strategies across its rapidly expanding economy. It has quickly amended policy on major science issues like this before: On AIDS, for instance, it realized it was losing not only the domestic battle against the disease, but the national and international battle to be seen to be battling the disease in a proactive way. In the past two years, it’s turned over entirely new policies that deal head on with the issue; there is still dissent, but there has been a remarkable shift. It’s possible that now that February’s IPCC report has hammered home that climate change is a fact, and China is seen as increasingly culpable, we will see the government address climate change the same way. Kiang says China’s leaders were caught off guard by the buzz generated by the IPCC report and suspects that they are now formulating a national strategy. “People say China cares more about local pollution than the global climate,” he says. “I think there’s some truth in that. But now I think China is ready to address global climate issues too.”

A dusty four-hour ride north of Linxia, the Gansu Natural Energy Research Institute (GNERI) occupies a collection of one- and two-story 1980s buildings on a parched plot of land. As Li Shimin, GNERI vice director, drives up to the center to greet me, peasants are streaming out of mud homes carrying crude drums; they’re beginning a 10-mile trek to Lanzhou, Gansu’s capital, where they will play music for the lunar new year. Pulling into the driveway, Li’s car disrupts a gaggle of stray ducks that have wandered over from a local farmer’s house. “We had to build the center out here,” says Li. “It’s difficult to see the sun in Lanzhou.” In World Bank assessments, Lanzhou has at several points earned the dubious distinction of most polluted city in the world (15 other Chinese cities join it on the top-20 list). The local government has resorted to drastic measures to alleviate pollution, including halting building demolition, requiring civil servants to walk to work, and even knocking down one of the mountains that encircle the city, but the air still feels like the Beijing airport’s windowless smoking lounge.

Next door to the center, in a converted barnyard, peasants affix photovoltaic squares onto concrete shells to make solar cookers. The makeshift factory was started by a peasant couple who attended one of the center’s workshops on solar technology 15 years ago. At 130 yuan ($17) per cooker, business is booming.

Li first came out here in 1980, fresh out of Shanghai’s Fudan University with an engineering degree. At the time, it was hardly a glamorous post. But he left shortly after for the US National Bureau of Statistics, then returned with a determination to help China avoid the same problems that the US had incurred during industrialization. Today Chinese science is investing in renewables, with the Ministry of Science and Technology funding projects across the country. From this energy lab in Gansu to the world’s largest tidal power experiment at the mouth of the Yalu River, China is developing centers of innovation and national scientific pride.

On the wall of GNERI’s conference building is a map with lights—solar-powered, of course—indicating the countries that have sent delegates to the center to attend seminars: Thailand, Kyrgystan, Nigeria. And now, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization has chosen Lanzhou as the site of a $15 million center for solar technology transfer that will become one of the organization’s key promoters of “South-South cooperation.” Next year, GNERI will move into this new state-of-the-art complex.

Work on rural electrification allows the country to expand its soft power in the developing world where it is an increasingly important player. Li cites Africa as a big target. At the same time, such regions provide a market for the fledgling solar technology being developed by Chinese firms like Jiangsu province’s Suntech. James Wilsdon, director of the science and innovation program for the United Kingdom think tank Demos, spent six months in China last year interviewing scientists and came away impressed with the country’s potential. “If it manages to combine its growing technological capabilities with its capacity for large-scale, low-cost manufacturing,” he says, “consider what contribution China might make to low-carbon energy.”

Seven hundred miles northeast of Linxia is Bailingmiao, an arid and remote swath of land near the Mongolian border. Save for a handful of hardy Mongolians, wearing thick brocade jackets to insulate against the wind, it’s desolate. Even the sheep that furnish the locals with meat and wool are scarce out here. But by the end of this year, this wild, expansive vista will be transformed into a wind power plant, providing energy for several cities in Inner Mongolia. China has identified its remote northern region as a source of renewable energy and is ramping up production of wind power, building hulking wind turbines over these vast grasslands. China currently ranks sixth in the world in total wind power production, trailing behind renewables powerhouses like Germany and Denmark. But by 2020 it aims to increase its share by 1,200 percent, to 30,000 megawatts of power—a target the government upped last year, from 20,000 megawatts, after realizing that it was reaching its goals faster than anticipated.

Authoritarian power can, at certain times, and with specific regard to environmental issues, seem like an advantage. Across China, the government is constructing massive solar- and biofuel-powered eco-cities 30 times the size of the largest green communities elsewhere in the world. Investors in such projects can be confident that government policies will remain constant—and compared with developing democracies like India, which is also pushing renewables, this gives China a certain edge.

“The Chinese advantage is that when they decide something, they can do very dramatic things,” says energy analyst Jim Brock. “In 2000, they took 26,000 heavily polluting minibuses off the road in a week [in Beijing]. They cut the pollution by 6 percent just by saying we don’t want these cars on the road. Try that in the United States—it wouldn’t work.”

But the story here in Inner Mongolia is how the speed with which China implements projects can become a liability. In places like this, China in fact runs the risk of moving too quickly on the environment, with too little attention to the alliance-building and cooperation that are necessary to address an issue as gargantuan as climate change.

Entire wind farms have been built so quickly that the infrastructure to connect them to the grid wasn’t integrated into the plan, and so they sit, huge aeolian props thumping into the constant breeze, powering nothing. In July 2005, turbines from an Inner Mongolian wind farm collapsed, killing six workers. A subsequent investigation revealed that the accident was caused by hasty deadlines and failure to observe construction standards.

Many wind projects here are overseen by foreign firms with experience setting up farms in Europe. They bring with them the technical expertise to develop huge, elaborate power-generating schemes—knowledge that local officials would very much like to see transferred to their own scientists, engineers and planners. The government justifiably wants these partnerships to leave China with the ability to produce its own green technology.

As China races to achieve energy independence—and to do it in a green way—it risks engendering a culture of technonationalism. Frenzied development has created a cutthroat environment in Chinese science, with areas from genetics to the space program focused on achieving global “firsts.” Scientists describe a research environment in which a results-oriented, competitive approach takes priority over knowledge sharing, and where plagiarism is rampant. But while in areas like genetics research technonationalism may push important achievements, with the environment, cooperation is critical. “More than any other issue, climate change is a litmus test of whether China can adopt an outward-looking, global approach to innovation,” Wilsdon says. “Will China live up to global expectations, or will it buck its responsibility to act proactively in an international way? It’s going to be a very important test of China’s ability to operate as a player on the international stage.” One year from now, we may have the answer.

At a construction site in northern Beijing, the “bird’s nest” stadium, an asymmetrical and strangely beautiful mess of interlocking steel beams, and the whimsical swimming center, its exterior resembling a giant sheet of bubble wrap, are already taking shape. On the day I visit, however, they’re barely visible through the gritty, brown air of one of Beijing’s notorious springtime sandstorms. By local standards, this storm is a relatively tame one—last April, 330,000 tons of dirt fell on the city over the course of five days. But because of increased logging, mining, and road-building, which have left the plains west of Beijing dry and eroded, the frequency of such storms is increasing.

One year from now, in June 2008, the world will assemble here for Beijing’s Olympic Games, and China is preparing to put on a world-class show. For what they’ve designated the “Green Olympics,” the country is sparing no expense in deploying its impressive scientific and technical expertise to remake Beijing. The Olympic village will feature a $4.7 million solar energy system to provide heat and hot water to 16,000 people. A 100-megawatt wind farm outside of Beijing will power the city’s other neighborhoods. Parking lots will be covered with photovoltaic panels, the city’s buses will run on fuel cell technology, green roofs will cover 30 to 60 percent of its apartment buildings, and waste water will be piped out of the city for reuse in irrigation.

China is masterful at producing grand spectacles. When leaders of several central Asian states came to Shanghai in June 2006 for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Group, the government closed major roads, sent workers home, and ordered residents near the meeting site to avoid leaving their apartment complexes or hanging their laundry outside. When film festivals come to China, vendors of pirated DVDs are neatly swept off streets and thriving fake goods markets shut down—only to reopen a week later. For the Olympics, a designated weather modification office will reduce air and ground pollution before the Games by shooting rockets filled with silver iodide into the sky to make rain. Beijing’s Science and Technology Department has been experimenting with hormone therapy and crossbreeding to produce flowers that can withstand a Beijing August. “I’m sure that during those three weeks it will be crystal-clear in Beijing,” energy analyst Brock says. “They’re playing with all sorts of things.”

Olympic projects have always been as much about host nations displaying their engineering and technological skills as they are about athletics. But the contradictions in hosting the world’s first “Green Olympics,” and running the world’s fastest-growing and most polluting economy during an era of emerging global environmental awareness, may foil China’s efforts. “I hope and pray for the Olympics,” says Kiang, whose work on Beijing’s “Blue Sky” project in 1998 was directed at obtaining an Olympic bid for the city. “They spent a lot of money. But that’s not enough.”

China has invested heavily in fostering national pride through science—its highly publicized space program, Nobel Prize pursuit and cloning efforts are but three examples. But it also knows it desperately needs to raise its global environmental profile, and it sees the Games as its key opportunity to present a powerful green message to the world. The possibility remains, however, that without significant action toward adressing the larger impact of global climate change, this particular spectacle will come off as a reprehensible charade of global proportions.

Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenges to China’s Future, says elaborate staging is emblematic of China’s overall approach to the environment. “With any campaign in China, the focus is on reaching targets as quickly as possible, without attention to the details,” she says. “What China likes and is very good at is demonstration projects. But what it needs is systemic reform.”

While superficial, temporary change seems anathema to a long-term global approach, it could create an environment which serves an important role in engaging scientists and whetting citizens’ appetites for more lasting reforms. Kiang says the air pollution campaign he worked on, while explicitly targeted at obtaining an Olympic bid, had a lasting effect in making people realize that cleaner air was possible. “China took our recommendations seriously, and of course it was because of the Olympics,” he says. “But if you improve something, people notice and react to it.

China’s investment in renewable energy and green technology is at a crucial stage: The experiment is illuminating a path toward a sustainable and environmentally conscious future. And so the world now watches to see if China can capitalize on the existing momentum and bring about broader environmental change. If it does, the entire planet will benefit.

Originally published May 1, 2007

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