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China Journal: Can 1,300 Coal Plants Be Wrong?

Shanghai, China—This week, I'm traveling around China trying to get a better sense for the country's energy and environmental policies (the trip is being sponsored by the China-U.S. Exchange Foundation). On a very broad level, there are two big, contradictory facts about the country to consider. One is that China is working far more frantically than we are to rein in its greenhouse-gas pollution and promote cleaner energy sources. The other is that the country is so large and growing so fast that its emissions are still rising at a shocking pace—a new coal plant comes online nearly every week, belching up countless tons of carbon into the air.

So which one of these trends is going to win out? In a meeting with reporters earlier this morning, Peggy Liu, who chairs the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a non-profit in Shanghai, offered an interesting perspective. Right now, she conceded, it's true, all of China's efforts to scale up renewable power—the current goal is 15 percent by 2020—are pretty meaningless when compared with all the coal the country's burning. But, Liu argued, one way to think of things is that China's currently in a "throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks" phase. When the country does finally figure out how best to rein in its emissions, it will hit a tipping point, and change will come very, very rapidly.

What she means is that, right now, China's experimenting with a slew of different green policies, and it's doing so through a form of decentralization. Different provinces and cities are competing with each other to figure out how best to shift to cleaner energy. Some cities are launching pilot smart grid projects; others, like Shanghai, are experimenting with electric cars. (Shanghai in particular is doing pretty badly on the renewable front—it doesn't get much sun or wind—so it has to tinker with other low-carbon approaches.) Others are dabbling in strategies to make buildings more efficient.

And when some official out in the countryside does hit on a good idea, those ideas tend to spread quickly around the country. In 2008, for instance, Tianjin province launched a pilot program to charge consumers for plastic bags—as in D.C., the policy was so effective at reducing bag use that a few months later, the central government decided to institute a similar rule across the entire country. That mix of local experimentation and then speedy mass implementation—a mix of local autonomy and brute authoritarian might—Liu argues, will allow China to shift to a low-carbon economy faster than anyone expects.

It's worth dwelling on that "brute authoritarian might" point. One thing that makes China so different from the United States is that large infrastructure projects can be scaled up at a pace that would be incomprehensible to most Americans. Mayors basically rule their cities like kings, and have final say over land-use decisions and permitting. It really is a Robert Moses wet dream. You can see this in Shanghai, where the subway system—already the world's third-largest—has expanded galactically in the past year, with some six new lines and 200 new stations built to prepare the city for the Expo 2010. Compare that with the endless decades that it's taking New York City just to build its Second Avenue line.

True, part of what's going on here seems to be that NIMBY-ism is a less powerful force in China—although it's gathering momentum. In Shanghai, Liu argues that people are, on the whole, more open to radical changes in their city, more willing to undergo sweeping construction projects, more willing to sacrifice for investments in the future. (The Shanghai Expo slogan is "Better City, Better Life.") I can't tell how true that actually is—how many people even have a choice in the matter?—but certainly that's not the prevailing attitude in the United States, especially where energy's concerned. (That said, I'm reluctant to gush over the benefits of unfettered planning—just take a look at China's monstrous Three Gorges Dam, which has displaced some 1.3 million people and devastated the nearby soil and forest cover, and you start to see that NIMBY-ism isn't always a terrible thing.)

I asked if there was still a rift between Beijing's green aspirations and the provinces—a dynamic I'd reported on a few years ago—and Liu said this was increasingly no longer the case. Most provincial officials and mayors are now on board with the idea of going green. Even if they're not concerned with climate change per se, there's still air pollution (and the resulting riots) to worry about, as well as energy stability. Upgrading the grid, for instance, is a no-brainer for any region with lots of factories, since rolling blackouts and unreliable power can cost a manufacturing city like Guangdong billions of dollars each year.

That doesn't mean change is simple, though. When I asked Liu what some of the biggest hurdles to going green were, she noted that many Chinese officials seem to be myopically focused on technological fixes—building widgets like wind turbines. Yet many environmental and energy problems require a more holistic view. For instance, there are towns in Inner Mongolia that are razing thousands of acres of forests to get wood for heat. There's no one gadget that can fix this; it takes a combination of, say, better insulation for homes, a shift to more sustainable biomass generators, installing solar-powered water heaters, as well as behavioral changes… So this is one area where outside expertise can really help.

One final, and fascinating, point Liu mentioned was that one of the keys to China's environmental future is the rise of a young, highly educated middle class. Back in the 1980s, most students in Shanghai didn't take English until they were seniors—at which point they might learn the ABCs. Today, most students start learning English in the third grade. And as a legacy of China's one-child policy, this new generation of kids each have the undivided attention of six adults apiece. So what you have is a new, educated generation that has a lot of influence over attitudes in the rest of the country. And this generation is becoming quite environmentally conscious—last year, for instance, consumer magazines started running green issues for the first time ever. So there's a potentially seismic attitudinal shift underway, though we'll have to see how meaningful it actually proves to be.

(Shanghai photo credit: yohanes budiyanto)