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Is China Beating the U.S. in Clean Tech?

The president of NRDC points to a growing investment by China in energy technologies.
October 9, 2009

China could beat the United States in a race to deploy clean energy technology that can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, said Frances Beinecke, leader of a leading environmental group, speaking this week at MIT.

“I just got back from China, where there is tremendous investment in the clean tech sector,” said Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “They have a national renewable energy standard, a national efficiency standard, and China will build more of everything–more coal, more nuclear, more renewables–and they’ll invest in more efficiency than any other single country in the world.”

Given the progress in China, Beinecke says the U.S. needs policy changes to compete. “There’s a global race going on,” she said. “We need to get moving as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is through smart policies. We need to both pull the market and push the companies through regulation.”

The comments were part of a strategy to convince Congress to enact an energy bill, and to push the United States to take a leading role in framing an international climate-change agreement this winter in Copenhagen. The NRDC hopes the climate-change legislation will pass in Congress ahead of the climate treaty meeting, or as soon thereafter as possible. A climate bill was passed by the House in May, but as congressional attention has shifted toward health care, the Senate has been slow to take up its own bill. “The world is looking for leadership from the United States,” Beinecke said.

In backing the energy bill in Congress, NRDC has split from some other environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, that have opposed the draft legislation in Congress as not going far enough to control greenhouse gases. “This legislation won’t be perfect,” Beinecke said. “But the point is to put a target and a timetable out there, to put a cap on carbon and begin to get capital dollars to flow into the energy sector to create a very different energy future. Nearly two million jobs could be created in America, just from the House bill.”

China has increased its investment in clean technology in recent years. According to a report released in August by The Climate Group, a nonprofit group based in London that supports clean technology development, “in an incredibly short space of time China has taken the lead in the race to develop and commercialize a range of low carbon technologies.” The report highlighted that China plans to produce half a million electric vehicles in 2011, and that it produces 30 percent of the world’s solar panels and is the world’s fourth-largest generator of wind power. A report from the British bank HSBC earlier this year noted that China’s economic stimulus package invested $221 billion in technology for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, about twice the amount invested in such technology through the U.S. economic stimulus package enacted earlier this year.

Still, China is hardly a model for addressing climate change. China recently became the world’s largest producer of greenhouse-gas emissions (although the United States still leads on a per capita basis). A report from the International Energy Agency this month suggests that China’s greenhouse-gas emissions will continue to increase rapidly, nearly doubling by 2030 without new, aggressive climate policies. Even with such policies, China’s emissions are expected to increase in the next decades, though at a slower pace.

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