Clean energy coming soon to China, everybody hopes

August 20, 2010 | Posted by Chris

A zero-emission electric car manufactured by Chinese company BYD, above.

The New York Times reports on the Chinese government's plans to invest heavily in the development of electric and hybrid vehicles, amounts totaling billions of dollars over the next few years. While the article is right to point out China's ambitions to be a global leader in green technology for reasons related to developing a robust domestic car industry, it fails to mention the 800-pound gorilla in the room: China's tremendous environmental challenges and how clean energy technology may help solve them.

The article boils down the situation to two variables:

"What you have here is the confluence of two important things," Professor Shenkar said. "The car industry was long ago designated as a pillar industry for China. And the second thing is green technology or high tech; this is where the action is going to be, and China wants to be there."

While all true, a more salient analysis would also take into account the pollution people living in China deal with day in and day out, and the potential green technology has to allleviate the pollution. For example, blue skies are uncommon in Beijing, a city that has over 4 million cars and sees nearly 1500 new vehicles on the road each day. Zero emission vehicles would go a long way in clearing up the skies -- something that not only residents but also international neighbors would appreciate.

James Fallows, national correspondent for 'The Atlantic Monthly' and someone who has lived in and written extensively about China, is correct to say that the greatest problem facing China is the great environmental cost of its rapid development. After all, the World Bank in 2007 found that 460,000 people perish each year in China for reasons related to pollution. Moreover, in an eye-opening post, Shanghaiist tells the story of a man that recently swam 1200 kilometers along the Yangzi from his hometown of Wuhan to the Expo in Shanghai -- that is, except he had to skip the entire province of Anhui because the water pollution was so bad. Shanghaiist reports:

"Those cities all have industrial and chemical plants built along the river. At the places I swam, the air all had a terrible odor," he said frowning. The polluted water (which he said tasted bitter, like chemicals) and air was so bad that even now, he still had faint nausea. He was only able to last in that part of the river for an hour before he gave up and got on a boat to cross that part. In Jiangsu, where the water was clearer, he came back down to continue swimming.

And so for folks living in China, it is impossible to completely ignore its pollution problems -- and surely Chinese leadership counts pollution as a reason for its great ambitions to develop green technology, including electric cars and hybrids. Sure, the idea may be to one day export that technology to the world, but we shouldn't overlook the positive environmental effects of that same technology.

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