Published: June 2011
Can China Go Green?
No other country is investing so heavily in clean energy. But no other country burns as much coal to fuel its economy.
By Bill McKibben
Rizhao, in Shandong Province,
is one of the hundreds of Chinese cities gearing up to really grow. The road into town is eight lanes wide, even though at
the moment there's not much traffic. But the port, where great loads of iron ore arrive, is bustling, and Beijing has designated the shipping terminal as the
"Eastern bridgehead of the new Euro-Asia continental bridge." A big sign exhorts the residents to "build a civilized city and be a civilized citizen."
In other words, Rizhao is the kind of place that has scientists around the world deeply worried—China's rapid expansion and newfound wealth are pushing
carbon emissions ever higher. It's the kind of growth that helped China surge past the United States in the past decade to become the world's largest source of
global warming gases.
And yet, after lunch at the Guangdian Hotel, the city's chief engineer, Yu Haibo, led me to the roof of the restaurant for another view. First we clambered over
the hotel's solar-thermal system, an array of vacuum tubes that takes the sun's energy and turns it into all the hot water the kitchen and 102 rooms can
possibly use. Then, from the edge of the roof, we took in a view of the spreading skyline. On top of every single building for blocks around a similar solar array
sprouted. Solar is in at least 95 percent of all the buildings, Yu said proudly. "Some people say 99 percent, but I'm shy to say that."
Whatever the percentage, it's impressive—outside Honolulu, no city in the U.S. breaks single digits or even comes close. And Rizhao's solar water heaters are
not an aberration. China now leads the planet in the installation of renewable energy technology—its turbines catch the most wind, and its factories produce
the most solar cells.
We once thought of China as the "yellow peril" and then the "red menace." Now the colors are black and green. An epic race is on, and if you knew how the
race would come out—if you knew whether or how fast China could wean itself off coal and tap the sun and wind—then you'd have the single most important
data point of our century. The outcome of that race will determine how bad global warming is going to get. And right now the answer is still up in the air.
up in the air. Visitors to China are instantly struck, of course, by the pollution shrouding every major city. Slowly those skies are clearing a little, at
least in places like Beijing and Shanghai, as heavy industry is modernized or moved out of town. And the government has shut down many of the smallest and
filthiest coal-fired power plants. Indeed, the country now leads the world in building what engineers call supercritical power stations, which produce far less
smog than many of the hulking units still online in the U.S. Presumably China will get steadily cleaner as it gets richer—that's been the story elsewhere.