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Clean tech goes east

On the environmental front, we generally hear much bad news coming out of China. China has experienced extraordinary economic growth (annual increases in GDP of 8-9%), much of it at the expense of the environment. The stats are real and bleak. Just to highlight a few from a previous World Bank report (pdf):


Between 2000 and 2005, energy consumption increased 70%, with coal consumption increasing by 75%. This translates to steady and, in some cases, increased air pollution emissions; China is now the world’s largest emitter of sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions.


Rapid industrialization has also led to water pollution: in the same period, 54% of China’s seven main rivers were deemed unsafe for human consumption (among many problems, it’s hard to cut down on bottled water if you simply don’t have access to safe drinking water).

The lesser-told story is that China has been making significant progress on the clean technology front. A new infographic visually demonstrates just how far China has come, and is preparing to go.

Over the past five years, green energy and clean tech jobs have been shifting east, making China now the leader in clean technologies, outshining the US. A big factor in this shift east has been the movement of green manufacturing jobs, once dominated by the US, to China, where production costs (labor) are far cheaper. US solar manufacturing jobs, in particular, have seen the largest drop: from at least 40% in the mid 1990s, to just 7% today.

Some other striking comparisons: for every $41 the US is spending on defense, $1 is spent on renewables; China’s is only $3 for defense to every $1 on renewables. The US has also placed second to China in attracting renewable investments, with the exception of solar energy. For more detailed analysis of each graphic, check out Fast Company’s review.

So is the plethora of smokestack images to be ignored? (click below to view slideshow)

Of course not. It’s going to take China a lot of work to combat its problems, and there’s much evidence that climate change will have a disproportionate impact on developing countries. For critics who argue that countries like China and India aren’t holding their own when developed nations are being asked to cut their emissions, this is great evidence to the contrary. So let’s give credit where credit is due, but recognize that China has a plate full of environment dilemmas to resolve.

The take-away shouldn’t be that the US has “fallen behind.” Viewing environmental progress with a competitive mindset shouldn’t even be appropriate, since it’s not like we’re dealing with traditional winners or losers. There is plenty of room for growth, and plenty of space for multiple players. After all, there’s only one planet.

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