All of the world’s environmental challenges seem to go through China. In the last 24 hours alone, China has gotten a ton of press for what it is and isn't doing when it comes to clean air, energy development, renewable development and using fossil fuels.
Let’s begin with the Slate review of Jonathan Watts’ "When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China will save Mankind –or Destroy it," a book chronicling a journalist’s travels through China as he investigates what the nation is doing to contribute to as well as combat climate change. Johann Hari’s review of the book, entitled “The Chinese Eco-Disaster,” calls to attention the many environmental dichotomies that exist China. Hari writes about Watts’ experience traveling to Guangdong province where the journalist saw children picking through a sea of electronics to salvage usable parts. “The children grow sick with lead poisoning and develop brain damage, cancer, and kidney failure.” And while other tales of heavy coughing after a run in Beijing, and witnessing rivers that are now poisonous to touch are hard to ignore, there are also tales of huge green investment.
When it comes to investment, there is hope. One of Watts’ encounters with a green-minded entrepreneur talks about an ambitious plan that may only be achievable in a nation like China. “You would need to cover a third of the Gansu and Xinjiang deserts with photovoltaic solar power cells. It would turn the barren deserts into the country's greatest asset.” But hope of Chinese green-innovation, is often dashed as arguments of finger-pointing tend to take place between the United States and China about who is really responsible for the situation the world finds itself in. This back and forth focuses on policy shortcomings on behalf of both nations, rather than the innovation taking place inside each country. Hari articulates this argument with one pointed sentence from the perspective of the Chinese. “How dare you lecture us, when most of our emissions are from factories you have outsourced to make goods and process waste for you, and when you refuse to make even tiny cuts in your emissions at home?”
A Guardian story also articulates one difference between the two superpowers when it comes to green innovation. “While China is already boasting ‘All aboard!’ on a network of sleek passenger trains that zip 200 mph and beyond between major urban centers, the United States is still fussing about where to install a single high-speed rail line for a proposed California project.” The solution for narrowing the gap between the United States and China, reports The Guardian, is moving $100 billion from the Department of Defense and to green technology. "The idea that we will whack the Department of Defense to make the Department of Energy robust is a fantasy," the Guardian quoted Washington research fellow Miriam Pemberton. She added, "DOD might be cut some. The question is, what happens to that money? I can't see those resources going toward DOE. That shift will not occur."
While Pemberton’s analysis is probably the most realistic statement to come out of Washington in decades, it also comes with some jarring statistics. “For every dollar spent on climate in 2008, the U.S. spent $94 on the military. That will drop to a $41: $1 ratio this year.” Take Pemberton’s analysis from her study, "Military vs. Climate Security: The 2011 Budgets Compared, another step and you will find that “For every dollar China spends on climate, between $2 and $3 goes toward its military.”
And in case you wanted more interesting comparisons between the United States and China, a new report from the Woodrow Wilson Center makes several interesting observations including the fact that China is now “the world's number one investor in clean energy, nearly doubling the U.S. investment over the same period.”
All of this makes for interesting discussion when it comes to China. They, along with the United States, continue to be the major contributors to the environmental challenges we face and will face as time goes on. And both countries tend to have a long and storied history of saying some things when it comes to the environment while sometimes doing the opposite.