While China Cuts Energy Waste, the U.S. Just Wastes

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Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao Credit: Photo: David Gray / Reuters | Source: WALL STREET JOURNAL

I’m always cautious about overpraising China. That reluctance is partially due to the experience of having lived in Hong Kong for five years in the last decade. I saw up close the amazing and inspiring story of that country’s economic growth, which has led to hundreds of millions rising out of poverty. I also saw the negatives: air pollution from southern China’s factories turned the Hong Kong’s harbor sky into a sea of smog. Even now, while China’s leaders are admirably investing billions in alternative power and energy efficiency, coal plants are being built every week throughout the country, and its major cities remain environmental catastrophes. And there’s the small matter of political repression. Far-sighted planning can be a lot easier when one party has a monopoly on political power.

But despite all that, China deserves plenty of credit it one area: energy efficiency. Keith Bradsher of the New York Times reports that Beijing plans to announce strict goals for energy conservation in its next five-year plan, which will be announced soon:

Zhang Guobao, who was China’s longtime energy czar until his retirement in January and is still a power broker on energy issues, said Friday that China must undertake an “arduous” task to protect its security. “Oil security is the most important part of achieving energy security,” Mr. Zhang told the official Xinhua news agency. “Preparations for alternative energies should be made as soon as possible.”

The Wall Street Journal added more in its report:

China is the world’s top energy producer and user: Its energy consumption totaled 3.25 billion tons of coal equivalent last year, up 5.9% from 2009, the agency said.

Mr. Zhang said that under the new plan, overall energy consumption growth would average an annual 4.24% during the coming five years.

The previous five-year plan had a renewables target of 10%, which wasn’t met. Now, nonfossil fuels account for 8% of China’s total energy use; the country intends to increase it to 15% by 2020, Mr. Zhang said in the report.

The rationale is simple. As China keeps growing, it needs more and more energy—and in a world ruled by scarenomics, that energy will likely get more expensive and will make China more dependent on foreign suppliers. Choking air pollution and growing carbon emissions have a price as well. To the leaders in Beijing, there is no room for waste—so by fiat, there will be no waste.

Just because Beijing sets goals for better energy efficiency doesn’t mean those goals will always be met, admittedly. China’s previous Five-Year Plan called for the country to reduce by 20% the amount of energy it used per renminbi of economic output in 2010, compared to 2005. But the country struggled to meet the 20% goal, in part because the economic stimulus program called for massive investment in construction and other energy-intensive areas. So Premier Wen Jiabao launched an “iron hand” program to bring the country in line last May, even ordering the shutdown of thousands of inefficient factories. Local authorities took it further, cutting off electricity and heat to businesses and homes.

As Bradsher points out, official Chinese figures indicate that Beijing still fell slightly short, improving energy intensity only 19.1% over the last five years—and one should always take Chinese figures with a grain of salt, especially as they relate to national goals. But to reach the new goal of keeping energy use at the equivalent of 4 billion metric tons of coal will be even tougher, especially if the economy grows faster than Chinese leaders are aiming.

But at least they have a plan. What do we have in the U.S.? On Wednesday, Republican Representative Michele Bachmann reintroduced her Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. The bill would repeal the gradual phaseout of traditional incandescent lightbulbs that was a part of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. As Bachmann said in a statement:

The government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy. In 2007, Congress overstepped its bounds by mandating that only ‘energy efficient’ light bulbs may be sold after January 1, 2012. This mandate has sweeping effects on American families and businesses and needs serious consideration before taking effect.

This is the same Energy Independence and Security Act that was passed with the support of 95 Republicans in Congress and signed into law by a Republican President. It was a law meant to take a few modest steps towards making the U.S. more energy-efficient, to reduce waste and the country’s reliance on foreign oil—all goals that seem fairly bipartisan. Yet for many conservatives, that’s simply not an option any more—not if it gets in the way of our freedom to waste energy if we want.

Shifting away from incandescent lightbulbs won’t make a huge difference in our energy bill, and it won’t do much at all to reduce our vulnerability to oil shocks—which is all the more apparent these days. But opposing attempts to improve energy efficiency is just plain stupid—and increasingly at odds with the values of that institution that conservatives like Bachmann support wholeheartedly: the U.S. military, which has made energy efficiency a critical part of its mission.

At the Climate, Mind and Behavior conference I attended at the Garrison Institute this week, Bill Browning—the founder of Terrapin, an environmental consulting group—explained why. Browning—who has advised the Defense Department on energy—noted that in a war theater, a single gallon of gasoline can cost hundreds of dollars, thanks to additional burden of shipping and the need to protect fuel convoys. In Iraq and Afghanistan, those long fuel convoys became death traps. Unlike in previous wars, there was no safe supply line, no conquered ground behind a front. Combat is everywhere, and those convoys proved to be a tempting target for insurgent. More than half the casualties in the was on terror have been in convoys—in fact, until recently, one life was lost for every 24 convoys, a “blood burden” that could no longer be borne. In normal times wasting energy wastes money—in wartime, it wastes lives, which is what has led the armed forces to go green in a way that civilians haven’t matched.

China can do it. The U.S. military can do it. It would be shameful if Congress and the American people can’t.

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