Bjørn Lomborg Dismisses China’s “Green Leap Forward”: Others Respond

On April 20, controversial “Skeptical Environmentalist” Bjørn Lomborg argued in a Washington Post op-ed that high praise for China’s environmental progress is ill-deserved. The article has since drawn heavy criticism.

From Lomborg:

As the world’s factory floor, China is not an obvious environmental leader. It is beleaguered by severe pollution and generates more carbon emissions than any other nation. Yet many have trumpeted it as an emerging “green giant” for its non-carbon-based energy production and its aggressive promises to cut carbon emissions. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described China’s “green leap forward” as “the most important thing to happen” at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

But the facts do not support this “green” success story.

China indeed invests more than any other nation in environmentally friendly energy production: $34 billion in 2009, or twice as much as the United States. Almost all of its investment, however, is spent producing green energy for Western nations that pay heavy subsidies for consumers to use solar panels and wind turbines.

China was responsible for half of the world’s production of solar panels in 2010, but only 1 percent was installed there. Just as China produces everything from trinkets to supertankers, it is exporting green technology — which makes it a giant of manufacturing, not of environmental friendliness ….

Consider the bigger picture: 87 percent of the energy produced in China comes from fossil fuels, the vast majority of it from coal, the International Energy Agency found in 2010.

Michael A Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations responded the next day, noting that while the “green leap forward” may indeed be exaggerated, Lomborg’s argument was an unfortunate “mix of truth and nonsense”.

Lomborg is correct on a few important points: “87 percent of the energy produced in China comes from fossil fuels”; China’s emissions intensity target is consistent with IEA projections of what will happen without new policies; and the vast majority of Chinese solar panels are exported, not used at home.

But these truths are mixed with real whoppers. Lomborg claims that “almost all of [China’s] investment, however, is spent producing green energy for Western nations that pay heavy subsidies for consumers to use solar panels and wind turbines.” That’s not true. Chinese renewables investment is dominated by wind power, and Chinese wind turbines are deployed overwhelmingly at home. (It’s telling that Lomborg only cites export statistics for solar, which is a much smaller slice of the investment pie.) He adds that much of Chinese wind deployment “has been for show”. How does he know? “A 2008 Citigroup analysis found that about one-third of China’s wind power assets were not in use. Many turbines are not connected to the transmission grid.” But that wasn’t because wind investment was for show – it was because Chinese grid planning was a mess. China has caught up considerably since 2008, though it still struggles. But that’s not because it doesn’t care about its wind assets – it’s because it’s faced capacity challenges achieving its goals ….

The op-ed does, however, make an important point: technology is far more likely to be adopted if it is cheap than if it is expensive. Lomborg uses the case of solar water heaters in China to illustrate this: “Because solar heaters are cheaper than fossil fuel heating, consumers don’t need to be paid large subsidies to use them…. A green future will result not from subsidizing immature technology today but from developing competitive green technology that is effective and cheap.” There’s only one problem: China subsidizes purchases of solar hot water heaters. (Sample headline from China Daily: “Solar heating hot due to subsidies”.) Moreover, whatever advances China has made in bringing down costs aren’t mainly because of fancy breakthroughs in research labs – they’re because of economies of scale and gains from learning, both of which has been brought about through mass deployment. And what’s helped make that mass deployment possible? You guessed it: subsidies.

The National Resources Defense Council’s China program director Barbara Finamore joined the fray with a letter to the editor in Monday’s Washington Post:

In his April 21 op-ed, “Beyond the ‘green China’ myth,” Bjorn Lomborg used outdated figures to make light of China’s successes in deploying clean energy. 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.

Mr. Lomborg confused the International Energy Agency’s scenario for carbon reductions with a business-as-usual forecast. The IEA considered all of China’s ambitious policies and assumes renewal over the next decade. Discounting this as “nothing new” penalizes China for being an early adopter.

With extended efforts, including increasing the share of non-fossil fuels to 16 percent of the final energy mix by 2020, China is on track to help stabilize the global temperature rise at 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.