Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

National Geographic “Can China go green?”

Posted 06 Jun 2011 / 0

Bill McKibben has a feature article in this month’s National Geographic entitled “Can China go green?“.The article discusses how the rapid growth of the Chinese economy presents both great environmental risks and great environmental opportunities. Although McKibben is a well-known environmental activist, he writes an informative, fair assessment of the ‘Chinese problem’.

China is, arguably, ground zero for where our planet goes environmentally. Now commanding the largest economy with the largest gross amount of carbon emissions (although still far behind the United States and other western countries on a per capita basis), China will set the tone for the rest of the world. Because China is growing at such a feverish pace, the decisions it makes about growth could decide whether humanity will be sustainable enough to avert environmental catastrophe. The focus of the article is to contrast two sides of China that are both riding the economic growth wave: that of large-scale coal exploitation and unprecedented implementation of sustainable energy technologies. Which of these two sides ‘wins out’ will determine whether the China of tomorrow is the most spectacularly green economy every known or the most egregious polluter.

I think that there is plenty of fear being spread out there about China and its abundant coal, and I was pretty familiar with China’s potential to burn their way dirty into their new economy. But what this article nicely points out is that the sheer volume of the Chinese expansion also has allowed for large-scale green expansion. China has huge potential for solar-power generation, and its existing energy portfolio — while still heavily dependent on coal — is somewhat diverse. There is kind of race going on, between the cheap-and-dirty energy economy that has fueled our consumption of cheap goods for years and the up-and-coming Chinese middle class, who once they become a significant enough fraction of society will demand a higher environmental standard of living.

I particularly appreciated that McKibben points out that while it is easy to worry about China, the only way that any country is going to effectively curb their environmental impact — particularly when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions — is through international agreement. What is maybe a little scary is how our economic relationship with China has prevented us from getting serious about negotiating such an agreement; as China expands, we have to hope that it is not too late to forge agreements that help realize the greener side of this megalithic country.

Articles, Economics, Environmental Justice, Political Science, Population Pressure, Public Policy, Resource Consumption, Sustainability, Sustainable Energy

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