On rare occasions we get a little global and a bit political in this home-focused energy blog. The photo at left shows, in minuscule scale at bottom, a house in Mongolia adorned with various solar devices: photovoltaics, solar hot water, passive window orientation, like that. It is part of a new thrust in Chinese policy which swerves sharply away from the “let them eat soot” approach previously taken in China’s dizzying progress through the swiftest and most aggressive industrial and technological revolution the planet has yet seen. In one respect only does China fail to eclipse the industrial revolutions of, say, Britain and the US: creative innovation, and that missing ingredient has been willingly supplied by a West eager to trade its technological treasure for the privilege of having our toasters made for us cheaply and in astonishing quantity.
China has become a smokestack economy over the last 40 years, replacing farms with factories while maintaining an adequate agricultural sector and keeping everyone fed. The air, water and land in China have suffered, along with the health of the Chinese people, in predictable ways as the industrial economy has grown by leaps and bounds. Chinese air and water quality have become a global joke, something to point to when defending some environmental foolishness on the part of a nation which should know better. But,,,, but,,,, we’re not as bad as the Chinese, they sputter. And one significant argument against an aggressive response to global climate change has been, why do our part, when the Chinese are the biggest polluters and they have no intention of changing?
As it turns out, China, with its now-customary swiftness, is directing its attention to energy policy and global climate change. This link is to a United Nations site which records that China will meet a goal of 20% reduction in energy intensity by the end of 2010. Are the Chinese, not to put too fine a point on it, just blowing smoke at us? It wouldn’t be the first time. But independent observers confirm that at least part of this claim is true: that China is moving toward a national energy awareness, if not independence. China is the single largest consumer of energy on the planet, and the largest importer of oil. It has its own reserves of coal and some natural gas, which it supplements with purchased gas from Russia. Small surprise: China exports coal to America, and it imports coal for special industrial use (steel production). And 70% of China’s power is generated by coal-burning plants.
To come to the point: China is now the single largest manufacturer of solar panels. The largest solar farms and panel arrays in the world are planned for Chinese locations over the next few years. The solar power production of Europe and Scandinavia, which put the U.S. to shame, are being dwarfed by Chinese installations now in operation. We will soon be unable to point to China as the dragging foot in the war on global climate change and the struggle for renewable energy dominance. By the next Presidential election the U.S. will be embarrassingly behind most of the developed nations in energy independence and renewables production.
Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist, writes in a recent column that “China has the most aggressive renewable energy deployment in the world.” He writes elsewhere that American reluctance to consider measures like a hefty gas tax, research on clean nuclear energy, and significant subsidies for renewable energy production have already caused us to lag behind Europe and Scandinavia. Soon, he says, we will be lagging behind Asia, and after that? Will Latin America also eclipse us as we move into the “Energy Century?” What will it take?
Leadership in this most miraculous of nations (that’s us, by the way— America the beautiful, in which I have implicit faith) comes from both the top and the bottom rungs of the power ladder. We respond to grassroots leadership (that was the 60s, you unbelievers, the last great grassroots movement in America) as well as to great political leadership (that would be the Clintons, pointing the way to broad-based national health care in the 90s), and even when that leadership leaves the stage, the ideas remain to sprout and grow. We are now reaping a harvest of change from Hillary’s health care efforts in the 90s, and we stop at Whole Foods on the way home thanks to a little fad begun in the 60s by some fanatics who had read too much Rachel Carson. We will be dragged into sanity in the near future by leaders like Al Gore and others who are now being shouted down by an oil-subsidized opposition, and America will become an energy leader again. I await the day. Meantime, I’ll keep blogging, installing tight windows, nailing solar panels onto my house, and trying to reduce my energy footprint. Next time we’ll get back on task with home topics.