This past week, it became very clear that the United States will never get around to doing what it takes to lead on climate change. Last December, President Barack Obama went to Copenhagen promising the world the U.S. would cut its emissions 17% by 2020. That target by itself, while an important milestone, didn’t even come close to what the science says we need to do to avert catastrophic climate change. After tough health care and financial reform battles, Obama chose not to embrace a battle for climate change legislation, instead sending his own lobbyists to work on “getting the votes” in the U.S. Senate. The bill in consideration, initially focusing on capping greenhouse gas emissions, got so watered down that it basically became an energy bill like the one passed in 2005 under the Bush administration, with no goals on cutting greenhouse gas emissions nor any renewable energy targets. All of this in a Democrat-controlled Congress that promised swift action to end our addiction to fossil fuels and spur a clean energy economy that creates hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
So, after more than 10 years of fighting and high public support for action on climate change since the days of Kyoto, the U.S. Senate has confirmed what we refused to admit. The United States will NOT lead on climate change, so we must not put our hopes on this nation. It seems that no matter what we do locally or globally, the ideology-based members of Congress will simply not agree to ensuring the U.S. economy doesn’t miss the great jobs and growth opportunity that clean-tech would bring. They will only agree to enriching the pockets of their fossil fuel friends, and ONLY with fossil fuels, as to them it seems that fossil fuel money is very different than clean energy money. As a result, it’s time to think not about nation-building through problem-solving, but about human survival through problem-solving. In other words, we have to think about how we can avert climate catastrophe at whatever cost instead of how we can do so at benefits to us (“us” being U.S. citizens). In the end, we’ll be better off averting climate catastrophe even if it’s not us who take the biggest piece of the clean-tech pie.
As it stands, the best hope we have right now to avert climate catastrophe is China. With all the press that people read about coal burning and ever-increasing consumption in China, it is the only country showing the incredible capacity we’ll need to muster to make the transition to clean energy. In only four years, China has become the world’s leader in wind and solar, beginning exactly from nothing. It took the developed world decades to get to where China has gotten in just a few years. On top of that, it takes China very little to make a decision that will strengthen their capacity to lead on clean energy, such as creating feed-in tariffs, investing twice as much on clean energy than the United States, and even creating a cap-and-trade system to price carbon directly. It can do this even while having one of the biggest supplies of coal. If what China has done in a few years is any indication of what’s to come, we MUST begin to put our hope on China as a major innovator in clean energy and, as such, the only leader that can and should be responsible for leading the world away from climate catastrophe.
To make this clear, let’s put out some numbers about how impressive China’s clean energy sector has been over the last few years. Five years ago, China wasn’t even up on the charts in the wind energy sector. In 2005, it approved major policy to drive growth of wind turbine manufacturing and wind energy installations. In 2009, it led the world in total installations of wind energy, installing a stellar 13.8GW of wind energy (compared to 9.9GW in the U.S.; China is expected to pass the U.S. in installed capacity in 2010). At the same time, it became the world’s top manufacturer of wind turbines, with 3 firms already in the global top 10. In photovoltaic (solar power or PV), it supplied nearly 40% of the world’s panels last year, making it the leader in PV manufacturing. In addition to these key technologies, it has broken it’s own goals in solar hot water, biomass, and hydro consistently. It is also building the world’s largest and most advanced high speed rail systems, and has one of the world’s most ambitious programs to manufacture electric vehicles, having its own target of becoming the world’s leader in just three years. A very long walk for such little talk.
We can’t fool ourselves. China is clearly today’s most capable nation of turning this crisis into an incredible opportunity. While the U.S. still has incredible capacity, its gridlocked politicians will never let it pick up momentum, especially now after everything indicates politics will just get worse after November 2010. In spite of the reality that there are key issues in relation to China’s jump into clean-tech (such as quality), these are gradually going away as China’s clean-tech sector matures. It is time for the world’s attention to shift away from the U.S. and onto China when it comes to climate change. Chinese authorities know they will lead, and it is why their game has been very simple: obstruct international negotiations that could lead to the U.S. being more aggressive on clean-tech. This buys China time to create its industries, fix any issues they might have, and drive them to incredible growth that can not only meet domestic clean energy targets, but also easily take the rest of the world on a transition to clean energy, EVs, high-speed rails, etc.
The sooner we admit this, the sooner the rest of the world can shift its attention to China, putting pressure on its authorities to drive the clean-tech bandwagon fast enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions on a scale that would prevent Greenland’s melting, the Amazon’s burning, and the Arctic’s disappearance. For us, it’s no longer about whether we will lead. It’s about whether we will survive.