China’s ‘green economy’ will have to wait

Last week, I was stuck in a traffic jam in Zhongguancun, the high-technology zone in northwest Beijing that’s supposed to be China’s Silicon Valley. But right then, it looked more like the 405 on a very bad day. The air was hot, thick and dark gray with smog. Six lanes of cars, trucks and buses were at a near-standstill in both directions. The driver predicted — accurately— that the nine-mile drive to downtown would take an hour. I found myself thinking: This is the new, green China I’ve been reading about?

In fact, China isn’t green at all; as the Chinese themselves say, referring to the ever-present smog in their megacities, it’s gray. Air pollution is getting steadily worse, and water pollution is a major crisis as well. China burns more coal (by far) and emits more greenhouse gases than any other country. It sells more automobiles than any other country too (it passed the United States last year). And all those bad numbers are still going up, because China’s No. 1 goal is increasing industrial production, not protecting the environment.

The country’s breathtaking growth has been built on heavy industry, infrastructure construction and amazingly inefficient energy consumption. China creates about 8% of the world’s economic product, but it does so by consuming about 20% of the world’s energy.

Of course, on a per capita basis, China’s 1.3 billion people consume only about one-fourth as much energy as we do. But that gap is narrowing; by 2020, China’s carbon dioxide emissions are expected to exceed Europe’s on a per capita basis. In the face of those forecasts, some Chinese officials argue bluntly that their country’s emissions are nobody’s business.

“We cannot blindly accept that protecting the climate is humanity’s common interest; national interests should come first,” Yu Qingtai, China’s chief climate negotiator, said in a speech last month. “The country has to develop … and if that increases emissions, I say, ‘So what?’ The people have a right to a better life.”


But wait, you ask. Hasn’t China made a “green economy” its national goal? Isn’t it working to increase efficiency and reduce emissions? And isn’t its government investing billions in alternative energy?

Yes, yes and yes. But that doesn’t make China green or clean. It makes China a major polluter that promises to clean up its act someday — after it grows its economy. If alternative energy is going to be a lucrative business, China wants to be in on it, and that’s a good thing; but in its own energy diet, clean alternatives are still a drop in the bucket.

There’s one more big factor that makes improving China’s environment difficult: the messy realities of China’s authoritarian bureaucracies. National leaders in Beijing announce ambitious goals, but many local officials and business owners ignore or subvert them, often as a result of perverse incentives that reward increasing production without considering other costs.

In central and southern China, for example, local governments met Beijing’s demand for lower energy consumption this year by imposing electricity blackouts, but many factories merely fired up diesel generators to replace the electricity. That way the local officials met their performance targets, but more pollution went into the air.

In the Pearl River delta, coal-burning power plants installed scrubbers in their smokestacks to comply with government orders, but some didn’t bother to turn them on, because that would have cost additional money. In the north and northwest, the government ordered hundreds of wind turbines to produce clean power, but the power grid can’t handle their output. Production targets were met, but some turbines are spinning uselessly in the wind.

In some parts of China, favored firms get official status as “protected businesses,” immune from environmental inspection. In Anhui province in eastern China, six environmental inspectors were fired last spring because, as China Central Television reported, they were working too hard: They had the effrontery to check on a tire factory three times in one month. “Doing that to a business really affects our development environment,” a local official explained.

It’s tempting to read stories like that and conclude that China is engaged in a giant scheme of Potemkin environmentalism, loftily telling the world it’s cleaning up its act when it really isn’t.

But the real story, China scholars say, is more subtle, and more interesting. China may be a one-party state, but officials in its central and local governments often act at cross purposes — a phenomenon political scientists Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael Oksenberg have dubbed “fragmented authoritarianism.” In Beijing, President Hu Jintao has declared environmental protection a top priority, and proposed evaluating bureaucrats’ performance on more than just production. But when I visited local officials in Sichuan province last week, they said their top priorities were building 3,000 miles of new freeway and attracting foreign investment to create jobs; energy and the environment sounded distinctly like an afterthought.

So the next time somebody tells you we ought to emulate China’s authoritarian approach to energy and the environment, ask them which part they mean: the ambitious rhetoric, or the disappointing performance.

It’s nice that China has made a big commitment to clean up its act. It will be even nicer if China delivers.