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And Around We Go

By now, we've all heard the same merry-go-round arguments about why the U.S. can't afford aggressive measures to develop clean energy and tackle climate change. And most of those arguments revolve around that other behemoth-of-a-superpower: China. We can practically roll the stats off our tongues: China's now the #1 emitter of greenhouse gases. China is building one coal-fired power plant a week. If China doesn't clean up its act, why should we?

Now, I've been to China, and yes the pollution in some parts is as bad as you have read. L.A. smog is terrible, but I don't remember the last time I couldn't see farther than 2 city blocks in L.A., and that was exactly what happened during one of my days in Beijing. But behind all the haze, a clearer picture is emerging that the developing giant may actually be undertaking some surprisingly aggressive actions to lower its carbon emissions and promote cleaner energy.

This message is not coming from China's communist leaders, it's coming from Jim Rogers, CEO, Chairman, and President of Duke Energy, one of the largest U.S. energy companies. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered on May 20th, Rogers revealed some startling statistics about China that should make the U.S. sit up and start taking notes:

  • China plans to invest $221 billion over the next two years to build a clean energy economy—everything from wind and solar development to high-speed rail. That's almost double the current US investment of $112 in renewable energy.
  • President Obama's recent mandate to raise fuel efficiency standards for U.S. automobiles to an average of 35.5 mpg by 2016 is commendable, but the U.S. is really playing catch-up if you consider that China's 2008 standard was already at 36 mpg.
  • In 2005, China passed its Renewable Energy Law which requires that by 2020, 15% of its energy must come from renewable sources, such as wind, solar, and biomass (the U.S. has yet to establish a national renewable energy standard).
  • Although China is building coal-fired power plants a lot faster than the U.S., the New York Times reports that roughly 60% of its new plants use advanced technology that makes them more energy efficient and less polluting. China has also started to require power companies to retire one old polluting plant for every new efficient one they build.

China may deserve a pat on the back for all its efforts, but why does it matter to us? Well, for one thing, China is not doing this to be a saint. It's doing this because its clean energy policies are giving a boost to its economy, and that is sounding pretty good right now in the midst of a global economic meltdown. The clean energy industry is booming in China. Its leading solar company, SunTech, is now one of the world's largest producers of solar panels. China’s BYD, one of the world's top producers of rechargeable cell phone batteries, has received hundreds of millions of dollars in investments from the likes of Warren Buffet and is now working on producing advanced models of electric cars. And this year, China is expected to become the world's largest manufacturer of wind turbines. These stats are not just numbers on paper—they translate into jobs, something the U.S. desperately needs right now.

China's actions should make us realize that other countries are starting to move forward on clean energy and climate change. We don't really have an excuse to stand still anymore. Besides, being ahead of the curve on the next big cutting edge technology usually has its benefits (the Internet, anyone?). The Obama administration and Congress seem to be getting the message, and some encouraging signs are starting to emerge that the U.S. is ready to play a leading role in tackling climate change.

One thing's for sure though: it's about time we got off this merry go-round.

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