Intelligent Energy

If China leads the world in clean tech, why are people dying?

Posting in Government

A future of renewables, maybe. A grim present for sure, highlighted by a coal-related death in Inner Mongolia.

“The 170-mile ride up the Shanghai-to-Nanjing expressway epitomizes China’s manufacturing boom. Smokestacks, brown rivers, Godzilla-sized pylons, and construction cranes provide the scenery. Trucks outnumber cars on the 8-lane superhighway. Factories and housing occasionally give way to scraggly fields, where towering billboards advertise places like the Yangzhou Chemical Industry Park. Rancid air clutches the back of your throat. This is where Pittsburgh went.”

Those were my musings from a Nanjing trip a year ago. I think of them every time I see another report that rates China as the world’s leading country in clean technology. You've probably stumbled across these too. A new one emerges several times a year from the likes of McKinsey, Ernst & Young, Pew and so forth. Admittedly, I’ve written accounts of them as a warning to the renewables laggards of the West.

But each time I read and write about China’s clean technology ascendancy, I can’t quite square it with the grotesquely polluted scene that anyone who lives or travels there witnesses.

So I take note of two news events that remind us of the grim, present day environmental reality in the land of 1.3 billion people.

One is a tragic turn of events from Inner Mongolia, where Reuters reports that a herder named Mergen dared to protest against the pollution of a nearby coal mine. Mergen (many of China’s ethnic Mongolians use only one name) and 20 other herders attempted to block the path of a coal transport truck. It cost him his life, as the truck allegedly dragged him nearly 500 feet and killed him. The driver and co-driver are now on trial for murder, and Mergen’s death has sparked wider anti-pollution protests by other brave Inner Mongolians.

Those truck drivers were foot soldiers in China’s relentless march to extract more and more coal to fire up the power stations that continue to fuel its economic growth.

With all the talk of China’s voracious investment in wind and solar, you might forget that coal – with all of its CO2 and pollution - generates about 80% of China’s electricity. Even though China is the world’s leading coal producer and its third ranking holder of coal reserves, it really irks the country’s leaders that China just can’t access enough of its own, forcing it to import from Australia and other countries at increasing prices.

Thus, it’s expanding westward to get at more and more of its own black lumps. Among the consequences, it’s wiping out the traditional livelihood of herders like Mergen. And even if the herders do manage to hold on to grazing lands, they put up with the rumble of trucks and the choking dust morning, noon and night. It’s the same scene that has played out across the country, as the government displaces millions of individuals to build environmentally damaging coal and hydroelectric power projects. Mergen was run over by a coal truck; many other Chinese are dying slow or premature deaths from coal and industrial pollution.

Meanwhile, a different sort of story also reminds us of how China is managing to top those renewable reports from McKinsey et al – through hyperactive government subsidies that many in the West consider unfair.

Those westerners scored a small victory this week, as news broke that Beijing has agreed to stop funding wind turbine manufacturers that use domestically supplied components, rather than importing the components. The United Steelworkers Union had complained to the World Trade Organization that China protects its own clean technology producers in violation of WTO policies. That in turn makes it difficult for U.S. companies to sell components to Chinese wind turbine makers.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk also complained about the secretiveness of subsidies, which take many forms, some harder to spot than others. In my conversations with manufacturing insiders, I’ve heard tales of the government virtually giving away land to manufacturers of solar panels, and providing near-zero percent loans, for instance.

The cow may already be out of the barn. China has seeded wind turbine and solar producers to the point where the country leads the world in production of both, and could stay on that path even if subsidies shrink. And China may indeed have a bright renewable future. It has a lot of wind farms. It has ambitious carbon reduction targets. It seems to be innovating almost as well as it copies these days.

But none of that makes a bit of difference to Mergen’s family. Let’s not forget that, from an environmental and human rights perspective, China’s present is still in the West’s past, somewhere between the Victorian and post-World War II eras.

Photo: Wealth Daily

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure