Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

China Outpaces U.S. in Green Energy

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu is eloquent and charming, and his professorial manner resonated well with the many students who heard him speak in Gaston Hall on March 29. His presentation was informative and it highlighted the challenges that developed countries like the United States are facing today in the realm of climate change prevention.

He made the audience chuckle with a remark about how China’s authoritarian system of government is more efficient, and that is why they outspend the United States. Far from being a laughing matter, however, that comment captures the problem with the United States’ approach to clean energy.

According to a comprehensive report by the Pew Charitable Trust – a nonprofit research institute that focuses on environmental issues – China spent almost twice as much on clean energy investments as the United States did in 2009. China diverted a whopping $35 billion – more than any other country in the world – toward the development of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. The United States invested $19 billion.

There has been a radical shift in China’s attitude toward clean energy. Five years ago, the country spent only a fraction of what it does now. This change means two things for the United States.

First, China has fully recognized the importance of climate change prevention and has implemented domestic reforms and policies consistent with this recognition. This takes the wind out of the United States’ claim that China is not living up to its role as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs.

Statements made by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao have increasingly prioritized environmental policies. Investment in renewable energy sources was a central topic of debate at the recently concluded Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Members of the conference made clear that China should invest more in clean energy, but also seek to reduce the emissions from its fossil fuel consumption. Although China continues to build coal-based electricity plants, it has also shut down many of its most inefficient plants in an effort to reduce inefficiency and waste. These steps underline the Chinese government’s willingness to effectively tackle environmental problems. It is now the global leader in clean energy investment.

Second, the United States can no longer point fingers at China when it comes to clean energy. China has put the ball back in the United States’ court. A common misconception – which Chu proliferated in his talk – is that China can get things done much easier because it is not constrained by a tedious legislative process.

This is at best inaccurate and at worst entirely untrue. Although China does not have a democratic system, its policymaking and policy implementation are constrained by a plethora of individual and corporate interests that are very difficult to manage. The lack of transparency and accountability in the Chinese system allows for the creation of political factions that compete over issues. Environmental policy, which is heavily influenced by powerful state-owned energy companies that have a strong incentive to maintain the status quo, is no exception. Policy decisions are never a predetermined fait accompli, but instead face various barriers that need to be overcome. Thus, the recent efforts made by the government should be seen as a genuine push in the direction of cleaner energy and less wasteful consumption.

The United States has been caught with its pants down. The reports on China’s investment surge should serve as a wake-up call for the United States to start taking the issue of clean energy seriously. President Obama’s announcement that off-shore drilling will continue and intensify is a step in precisely the wrong direction. For both moral reasons and for the sake of competing with China, the United States cannot afford to fall behind in this race.

Max Stoiber is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.

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