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China's green leap forward

Facing dire pollution and wanting to be in on what may be the next industrial revolution, China positions itself to be a leader in green technology – with major implications for the rest of the world.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 10, 2009

A peasant tends a cornfield as turbines harvest the wind near the Great Wall of China. The wind farm turns out not only electricity but also curiosity: It is a favorite spot for newlyweds to take photos.

Peter Ford

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Beijing

Behind the notorious clouds of filth and greenhouse gases that China’s industrial behemoth spews into the atmosphere every day, a little-noticed revolution is under way. China is going green. And as the authorities here spur manufacturers of all kinds of alternative energy equipment to make more for less, “China price” and “China speed” are poised to snatch the lion’s share of the next multitrillion-dollar global industry – energy technology.

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Chinese factories already make a third of the world’s solar cells – six times more than America. Next year, China will become the largest market in the world for wind turbines – overtaking America. This fall, a Chinese firm will launch the world’s first mass-produced all-electric car of this century. And where are American utilities buying the latest generation of “clean coal” power stations? China.

“The Chinese government thinks of renewables as a major strategic industrial option” that will help fuel this country’s future growth, says Li Junfeng, deputy head of energy research at China’s top planning agency. “We will catch up with international advanced technology very quickly.”

China will likely remain the world’s worst polluter, emitting more CO2 than any other nation, for the foreseeable future. Its reliance on cheap coal to generate the bulk of its electricity makes that almost inevitable.

At the same time, however, “this country is installing a one-megawatt wind turbine every hour,” points out Dermot O’Gorman, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Beijing. “That is more encouraging than the one coal fired power station a week” that normally dominates foreign headlines.

Indeed, China is pushing ahead on renewable technologies with the fervor of a new space race. It wants to be in the forefront of what many believe will be the next industrial revolution. If it succeeds, it will hold far-reaching implications for the planet – affecting everything from Detroit’s competitiveness to global warming to the economic pecking order in the 21st century.

“The rest of the world doesn’t even realize that we are very likely ceding the next generation of energy technology to the Chinese,” says Todd Glass, an energy lawyer with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati in San Francisco.

A 20-MINUTE DRIVE from the Great Wall, along the south shore of the Guanting reservoir, straw-hatted peasants tend their corn crop as the elegant blades of windmills spin idly above them in the gentle breeze, farming the wind.

Guanting’s 43 wind turbines provided some of the power for last year’s “Green Olympics” of which China was so proud, and they continue to generate not only electricity, but admiration: The wind farm is a favorite spot for newlyweds to take their wedding photos.

“They find the windmills beautiful and magnificent,” says Yin Zhiyong, the Guanting wind farm manager, as he shows a visitor around. “So do I.”

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