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.
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That is the kind of perk that has helped the company recruit many engineers abroad – both foreigners and Chinese whom ENN has tempted home. “In China as a whole, research levels are still generally low. We are at a very, very young stage compared to the US or Europe,” says Gan Zhongxue, ENN’s chief technology officer. “So we recouped many researchers from the US and Europe who are familiar with advanced technology and can then do something for ENN.”Skip to next paragraph
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“China cannot yet produce things with the credibility and quality behind the ‘Made in Germany’ label,” adds Jennifer Morgan, an analyst with E3G, a London-based environmental think tank. “They are not there yet.”
Still, the country has plenty of reasons to attempt to be the world’s next green-energy power. For one thing, it has few natural energy resources of its own. Plus, its pollution problems are so severe that it has little choice. The country’s outsized reliance on coal is literally a matter of life and death: 750,000 people in China die prematurely each year because of air pollution, a World Bank study in 2007 found (though the Chinese government insisted the bank cut that statistic from its final report). Only 1 percent of the population breathes air that would be considered safe in Europe.
Moreover, Beijing – just like US President Barack Obama – sees renewable energy as an economic boon. Building out a new global energy industry over the next half century will generate more business than any other sector, Chinese officials predict, and they want a hefty chunk of that business. “This gives us an opportunity to develop a new area for a new industry” says Professor Li. “It’s good for our long-term development.”
BUT THE QUESTION LOOMS: What does China’s rise as a green power mean for the rest of the world? Certainly it has its benefits. A China with more solar cells and electric cars will help reduce the amount of heat-trapping gases building up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
It could also reduce the competition for, and depletion of, dwindling natural resources – notably oil. If China rises as a green-technology manufacturing hub, it could supply the world with low-cost solar panels and wind turbines as it does now with toys and textiles.
Yet there are worries for the West, too. If green energy is the new industrial revolution, Beijing will be grabbing many of the jobs of tomorrow. That will likely hasten the day when China becomes the world’s No. 1 economic power.
“China sees [green technology] as an enormous market that is not claimed or controlled by any one nation, and there is an opportunity for them to do it,” says Carberry. “The combination of urgency; the enormous needs; a focused, systematic planned government; an army of engineers; and access to capital may define China as the platform for the green- technology industry globally.”
Mr. Westlake of Clearworld Now, echoing the 1980’s song by the American rock band Timbuk3, puts it more pithily: “The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.”