Clean tech goes east

Written by Lauren


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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  1. Garrett

    I like the article, but disagree with your last point. Instead of just comparing, wouldn’t it be beneficial to compete with other emerging economies and countries as to who can be greener and develop a more sustainable country? Nothing fires up innovation and progress like competition. Look what the space race got us. If we have the world’s major economies constantly vying to be the sustainable, clean energy leader, then we all win, and sooner. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening in the US without strong leadership calling for it.

  2. eric

    Isn’t it about time that somebody sets China’s environmental record straight? Americans the world’s most prolific GHG emitters till recently seem to be quite happy that this degrading status has now been assumed by China. That fundamental change enables US financial interests and climate change deniers to sabotage America’s already dismal environmental record even more. After all, why should the US make efforts to reduce its GHG emissions if China keeps pumping more and more of that poison into the atmosphere? That is what gullible American voters are told. What Americans want you to forget is that China, India and other Third World Countries are doing most of their environmentally dirty work. Worse still, the “cheap” products these poor countries produce for affluent consumers will ultimately cost us the earth if we persist with that economic nonsense!
    China has very good reasons to reduce its GHG output fast because it makes no sense to work for a better future if that ultimate goal is negated in that process. Something that economistsand politicians the world over have yet to learn.
    That brings us back to the US. What a shame that the country supposed to lead the world in this vital fight for a sustainable future is politically corrupt and morally paralysed, or to put it more distinct, bankrupt. It’s dysfunctional democracy is held to ransom by powerful commercial interests, bible bashing climate change deniers and a very sizeable number of poorly educated and easily manipulated voters. That begs the crucial question, what is the point in hanging on to an horse and buggy constitution that serves the highest bidder only, disenfranchises concerned voters and puts the welfare of our species at risk? The ultimate irony in all of this is the sad fact that the whole world is held to ransom by this ignorant lot.
    Seen in this light, maybe it is time for China to assert itself before it is too late and everybody on his planet has to suffer the dire consequences America’s Midas stricken lunatics inflict on us? Who would have ever thought that neither brutal dictatorships, nor wars are the ultimate threat to our existence, but humanity’s most benign form of government, democracy gone mad.