Published: June 2011

Green China

Buddha in a northern China coal yard

Can China Go Green?

No other country is investing so heavily in clean energy. But no other country burns as much coal to fuel its economy.

By Bill McKibben
Photograph by Greg Girard

Rizhao, in Shandong Province, is one of the hundreds of Chinese cities gearing up to really grow. The road into town is eight lanes wide, even though at the moment there's not much traffic. But the port, where great loads of iron ore arrive, is bustling, and Beijing has designated the shipping terminal as the "Eastern bridgehead of the new Euro-Asia continental bridge." A big sign exhorts the residents to "build a civilized city and be a civilized citizen."

In other words, Rizhao is the kind of place that has scientists around the world deeply worried—China's rapid expansion and newfound wealth are pushing carbon emissions ever higher. It's the kind of growth that helped China surge past the United States in the past decade to become the world's largest source of global warming gases.

And yet, after lunch at the Guangdian Hotel, the city's chief engineer, Yu Haibo, led me to the roof of the restaurant for another view. First we clambered over the hotel's solar-thermal system, an array of vacuum tubes that takes the sun's energy and turns it into all the hot water the kitchen and 102 rooms can possibly use. Then, from the edge of the roof, we took in a view of the spreading skyline. On top of every single building for blocks around a similar solar array sprouted. Solar is in at least 95 percent of all the buildings, Yu said proudly. "Some people say 99 percent, but I'm shy to say that."

Whatever the percentage, it's impressive—outside Honolulu, no city in the U.S. breaks single digits or even comes close. And Rizhao's solar water heaters are not an aberration. China now leads the planet in the installation of renewable energy technology—its turbines catch the most wind, and its factories produce the most solar cells.

We once thought of China as the "yellow peril" and then the "red menace." Now the colors are black and green. An epic race is on, and if you knew how the race would come out—if you knew whether or how fast China could wean itself off coal and tap the sun and wind—then you'd have the single most important data point of our century. The outcome of that race will determine how bad global warming is going to get. And right now the answer is still up in the air.

Literally up in the air. Visitors to China are instantly struck, of course, by the pollution shrouding every major city. Slowly those skies are clearing a little, at least in places like Beijing and Shanghai, as heavy industry is modernized or moved out of town. And the government has shut down many of the smallest and filthiest coal-fired power plants. Indeed, the country now leads the world in building what engineers call supercritical power stations, which produce far less smog than many of the hulking units still online in the U.S. Presumably China will get steadily cleaner as it gets richer—that's been the story elsewhere.

But—and it's a crucial but—you can clean the air without really cleaning the air. The most efficient coal-fired power plants may not pour as much particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, but they still produce enormous quantities of carbon dioxide. Invisible, odorless, generally harmless to humans—and the very thing that's warming the planet. The richer China gets, the more it produces, because most of the things that go with wealth come with a gas tank or a plug. Any Chinese city is ringed with appliance stores; where once they offered electric fans, they now carry vibrating massage chairs.

"People are moving into newly renovated apartments, so they want a pretty, new fridge," a clerk told me. "People had a two-door one, and now they want a three-door." The average Shanghainese household already has 1.9 air conditioners, not to mention 1.2 computers. Beijing registers 20,000 new cars a month. As Gong Huiming, a transportation program officer at the nonprofit Energy Foundation in Beijing, put it: "Everyone wants to get the freedom and the faster speed and the comfort of a car."

That Chinese consumer revolution has barely begun. As of 2007, China had 22 cars for every 1,000 people, compared with 451 in the U.S. Once you leave the major cities, highways are often deserted and side roads are still filled with animals pulling carts. "Mostly, China's concentrated on industrial development so far," said Deborah Seligsohn, who works in Beijing for the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute. Those steel mills and cement plants have produced great clouds of carbon, and the government is working to make them more efficient. As the country's industrial base matures, their growth will slow. Consumers, on the other hand, show every sign of speeding up, and certainly no Westerner is in a position to scold.

Bill Valentino, a sustainability executive with the pharmaceutical giant Bayer who has long been based in Beijing, recently taught a high school class at one of the international schools. He had his students calculate their average carbon footprint, and they found that if everyone on the planet lived as they did, it would take two to four Earths' worth of raw materials to meet their needs. So they were already living unsustainable lives. Valentino—an expat American who flies often—then did the same exercise and found that if the whole world adopted his lifestyle, we'd require more than five planet Earths.

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