Editorial

Good News From China

China was prominent in the world's headlines this past summer, and the news was mixed at best. The country's booming economy has helped to drive up the price of everything from oil and soybeans to steel and cement. Meanwhile the staggering emissions from its combustion of coal and oil are sounding alarms worldwide.

But on another front, China is showing the way forward. At the history-making Renewables 2004 Conference (see Environmental Intelligence, page 10), China announced a bold new commitment to accelerate its use of renewable energy, building on the world leadership it has already established in small hydropower and solar water heating.

With China's electricity use soaring, and power outages now common in most of the country's provinces, the world's most populous country is in desperate need of new energy sources. Unlike oil and natural gas, most of which will have to be imported in the future, energy sources like solar and wind are huge domestic resources that will require no foreign exchange.

Of course, harnessing these sources requires technologies like wind turbines and solar cells, but these are manufactured devices that play to China's great strength; the country's skilled, low-cost work force has already made it a world leader in manufacturing.

The widespread use of renewable energy would be a strategic breakthrough for China's otherwise resource-constrained and pollution-burdened economy, making it easier to meet future power needs and to create millions of new jobs. China's leaders are also promoting more efficient energy technologies, and are considering new fuel economy standards for cars that would be stricter than those in the United States.

Significant as these developments are, they by no means suggest that China's environmental problems are over. From the dismal air quality in its urban centers to the spreading deserts in its northwest, China faces unprecedented ecological challenges. But at last China's leaders are demonstrating the kind of vision that will be needed to tackle its problems.

For renewable energy, a breakthrough in China would likely be a global breakthrough as well. The size of the China market, and its manufacturing prowess, have the potential to drive costs down to unprecedented levels, opening up new markets and spurring other countries to action.

The timing couldn't be better. The world has just two environmental "superpowers"-and with one of them temporarily on the sidelines, it's heartening to see the other moving forward.

 

Christopher Flavin

President, Worldwatch Institute