The river doesn’t just run black

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China and the environment might not be only about rivers changing colour several times a day and factories belching out air pollution that kills hundreds of thousands of people prematurely every year.

Elizabeth Economy outlined the extent of China’s environmental problems in her book, The River Runs Black.

In what could turn out to be the ultimate irony of ironies, the very economic system which has caused the crisis in the first place could end up resulting in China becoming the world’s leader in clean technologies.

Ample evidence already exists to this effect, according to the Climate Group – a London-based non-profit organisation, the members of which include BP and Dow Chemical.

The group’s latest report – China’s Clean Revolution – claims that China’s transition to a low carbon economy is already well underway. This is the result of supportive government policies which are driving innovation in low carbon technologies and diverting billions of dollars into energy efficiency and renewable technologies.

The huge energy that was poured into industrialisation, once Deng Xiaoping declared that getting rich was glorious, seems to have now been turned to wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy – along with conservation.

China now ranks fifth behind Germany, the US, Spain and India with six gigawatts of wind turbine capacity, says the Climate Group. Some experts believe that this could climb to 100 gigawatts by 2020.

As was the case with industrialisation, State backing might overcome that nasty burden of capitalism – the need to return short-term profits, or even any kind of profits at all.

Lending from China’s big banks is still largely directed by the government and the banking system is awash with liquidity – a drastic contrast with the Western credit blight.

Incentives are in place to boost wind power, but have yet to be introduced for solar energy. China. however, is second only to Japan in the global solar photovaltaic market.

Research is taking place in to carbon capture and storage and integrated gasification combined cycle technology.

China is also introducing fuel efficiency standards for cars which are 40 per cent higher than those in the US. Twenty one million electric bicycles and 1.64 million energy efficient compact cars were sold in 2007, the report adds. Clearly, the Chinese are doing a great deal more than just praying for lower gasoline prices.

This all sounds fantastic, but the old story about China is that what works at a central government level might not necessarily be implemented evenly across the country.

Arthur Kroeber of the China Economic Quarterly, however, believes that this old tale about China is total nonsense when the central government decides to take something seriously. The environment is one problem that Beijing is taking exceptionally seriously as it tries to build a more “harmonious society”, he says.

But the task remains huge. According to The New Scientist magazine, if China’s emissions continue to increase at 8 per cent per year, its per capita CO2 emissions will be double those of the European Union by 2020. While China’s emissions keep on rising, EU member countries are making big reductions. For example, Germany reduced its greenhouse gas output by more than 19% between 1990 and 2003.

The problem for China is that it still has to create lots of new jobs of a rapidly urbanising society, whereas many of the rich people in the EU are desperate to return to the rural life.

But, of course, the Europeans are hardly likely to return serfdom. Instead it’s all about four-wheel drive gas guzzlers, centrally-heated converted barns, and conveniently located supermarkets stocked with food and booze from the four corners of the Earth.

What planet are we all really on? We rich-world people are all desperately trying to get rid of that tiresome leftover venison as we insist on Afghan melon, to quote the Big Yin.

When I looked in the fridge the other day, my wife had bought Sicilian lemon juice. For pity’s sake…

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