I spent the evening speaking to Gao Jie, a Beijing civil judge who left the bench to join China's growing environmental movement when her kids came home from school one day coughing and wheezing. You only have to inhale in the capitol city these days to understand that they have a huge problem there.
One of the dirty little secrets of international trade for the last three decades has been the offshoring of high polluting industries from the US and Europe to China, which then vociferously complain about the emerging country's toxic environment. Much of the Middle Kingdom's record carbon emissions these days have been imported from the West. 'Cancer villages' are now proliferating throughout the landscape.
China gets 80% of its power from coal, compared to only 50% in the US. As a result, scientists figure that China became the world's largest emitter of CO2 in 2006. The central government is now asking the provinces to achieve both GDP and energy conservation goals at the same time, a difficult task at best. Government policy dictates that air conditioners only kick in at 79 degrees. If you think that went down well, try spending a summer in Beijing sometime.
It is also pushing headlong into alternative energy, is already the technological leader in key areas like wind, and has an eye to exporting low cost platforms to the US. It is no accident that two of the most competitive solar companies in the world, Suntech (STP) and Yingli Green Energy Holding (YGE), are Chinese. China is also having Phoenix based First Solar (FSLR) build the world's largest thin film solar power plant in Western China, which, it turns out, looks a lot like Arizona. The mammoth, 25 square mile facility will supply power to three million homes.
China's problems give one an inkling of how we might have ended up if we hadn't passed the Environmental Protection Act. I first visited China during the Cultural Revolution, when they doused piles of bodies of those who died in the famine with kerosene and burned them, and anyone educated had to endure being paraded down a street in a dunce cap. I had to pinch myself after seeing a sophisticated and well-educated woman like Gao Jie openly pursue her liberal goals, unfettered by a totalitarian regime.