How Excited Should We Be About China’s Green Energy?

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An interesting debate showed up in my Twitter feed today. A few followers of China’s green energy policies have taken climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post to task for using some information that undersells what China has accomplished.

I hadn’t read Lomborg’s article, which ran on April 21, but it tackles an issue I’ve often wondered about myself – how much of China’s much-hyped investment in green technology is being put into action? His conclusion is that China’s “green success story” is not all that it’s cracked up to be, in part because most Chinese investment in clean energy goes to manufacturing it for western nations that can only afford it with their own governments’ subsides. He writes that the domestic Chinese production there is is thin, citing, in the case of wind power, a “2008 Citigroup analysis found that about one-third of China’s wind power assets were not in use.”

Lomborg also writes that the oft-lauded goal of having 11.4% of domestic energy come from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2015 is somewhat misleading:

At best, this is a promise to slide backward merely slowly. Today, China gets 13 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels, particularly biomass and hydropower, with a little nuclear energy and a minuscule amount of solar and wind power.

Two rebukes to the article came to my attention this afternoon. (There may certainly be more out there, and more on top of that from his supporters.) Barbara Finamore, who is the country director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, contends that certain figures that Lomborg used were outdated, and did not correctly portray what’s happening in the country particularly in regard to wind power.

In a letter to the editor in the Post, she writes:

In 2010, China invested $45 billion in wind power (more than the entire U.S. clean-energy economy), which led to 17 gigawatts of new installations (more than three times that installed by the United States).

By 2010, 31 out of 41 gigawatts of national wind installations were connected to the transmission grid. China’s largest grid operator has committed to spending $44 billion by 2012 and $88 billion by 2020 on ultra-high-voltage transmission lines. On April 15, the Chinese government said it would make an effort to improve the connection situation and issue regulations soon for national wind power operations.

Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, agrees that Lomborg was  unfair to the progress that China has made on its improving its less-than-perfect grid, and emphasized that infrastructure was the culprit in 2008 figures that one-third of the wind assets weren’t producing energy. He also notes that, contrary to the claim that most investment is for manufacturing for export, most of China’s investment into wind goes into domestic production.

A separate point Levi makes is that what Lomborg identifies as “slide” from 13 of the non-fossil-fuel energy being produced today from mostly biomass and hydropower to 11.4% in four years is, in fact, progress:

Much of the “biomass” energy that he’s talking about isn’t high-tech ethanol of cogeneration – it’s people burning dung and wood in villages. China is rightly aiming to reduce those practices while boosting the use of modern non-fossil sources. If the total figures slide, but modern non-fossil sources go up considerably, that’s real progress.

I found the conversation useful; finding good statistics in China is a beast, and in the course of daily reading it’s a rare to come by the kind of detailed, up-to-the-minute information that Finamore and Levi provided in their responses. Though Lomborg may have undersold China’s case statistically, it seems his point is as much about whether we should be looking for green inspiration from a nation in which nearly 90% of domestic energy still comes from fossil fuels. It’s a fair one to ask, but then again, whether China’s green goals are dwarfed by its current reality or not, if they didn’t have them, the horizon would be looking a lot hazier than it is today.