The China Experiment – Mara Hvistendahl

Following the media’s current “greening of China” trend, Seed Magazine has a lengthy and interesting report about a growing environmental consciousness:

What Linxia has in abundance, however, is sunlight”and, in ways that might seem incongruous with the area’s economic conditions, people are putting it to good use. At Yuansheng Green Solar Power, a small store on a street otherwise devoted to hardware and tools, peasants living in remote areas where electricity is expensive stop to pick up solar water heaters and talk technology with owner Ding Yanlin. A few blocks away is the two-story Solar Supermarket, and spread out around the commercial district are three other independent solar-equipment dealers. In the rolling hills outside of town, Golden Yak-brand solar generator kits”small 20-watt photovoltaic panels providing enough energy for two high-efficiency bulbs”light the tents of nomads who are not hooked up to the grid. Solar generators, heaters, and cookers have become so popular in parts of rural Gansu that families have started giving them as dowry.

It’s a sign that, along with a quickly growing need for energy, an environmental consciousness is building here.

…Environmental conditions are already approaching apocalyptic in a country where coal provides 70 percent of the country’s power. Chinese scientists have predicted that the Yangtze River will die by 2011, and with two-thirds of other rivers polluted, more than 340 million Chinese lack access to clean drinking water. An estimated 400,000 Chinese die of pollution every year. By the government’s own estimates released in December 2006, climate change is occurring in China at alarming rates, with temperatures due to increase by 1.3 to 2.1 degrees Celsius by 2020. China is unveiling forward-thinking policies and pushing alternative energy because it has no other choice.

Within China, a growing grassroots environmental movement is calling for action to address years of industrial pollution. If China’s peasants get hooked on renewable power before they join the middle classes, and if its existing middle classes can learn to conserve energy before they can afford two cars, the country could effectively leapfrog over the West in developing sustainable energy and growth. If China can harness this potential, and reduce oil and coal power in its national drive for sustainable energy, it could usher in a new standard of scientifically-informed economic development. [Full text]

Read also a Foreign Policy blog comment on China going “green”.

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