Linden Ellis, ChinaDialogue
China’s Biggest Environmental Stories of 2010/11January 21, 2011 By Wilson Center StaffThe original version of this post first appeared on ChinaDialogue’s The Daily Planet blog, December 23, 2010.
Last month I spent a few days in Washington, DC meeting mostly with people working on U.S.-China environmental relations. Among others, I met with Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Wilson Center (and my former boss), and we had an exciting conversation about the biggest China environmental stories covered in the United States in 2010, and what we hope to see in 2011. I was inspired to write this post based on our conversation. This is of course neither definitive nor exhaustive, but merely my perspective on how things look from Washington.China Is Winning the Clean Energy Race. Energy was the big story in 2010. Studies show that the United States will need to renovate or retire virtually all of its power plants by 2050, and China must build a modern energy sector to serve a growing population. Both countries emphasized their intentions to build a clean energy economy in 2010 and almost immediately competition was dubbed a “race.” Soon after it was declared a two-party race, it became evident that China was winning.
China’s clean energy investment is two times greater than that of the United States, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report published last year. The news has centered upon China’s ability to make sweeping changes to domestic energy markets, in stark contrast to the United States’ inability to pass climate legislation. Most notably in 2010, China passed a regulation requiring that a percentage of all electric company profits be used for energy efficiency every year.
Energy “Co-op-etion.” Perhaps as a response to fears of “losing” the energy race, public opinion in the United States focused on new and existing energy cooperation and on market fairness. The U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, signed in 2009, was officially launched in 2010 and is likely to formalize a great deal of on-going cooperation on energy between the United States and China. In December, Jonathan Silver, Executive Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program, spoke at a conference in San Francisco and described the developing energy relationship between China and the United States as “co-op-etition” – the two countries have complementary markets and a lot to learn from each other but will compete in U.S., Chinese, and international markets to sell clean technologies.
Concerns about the fairness of the market – initially because of changes in China’s government procurement laws discriminating against foreign clean technology companies – peaked with the U.S. Steel Workers’ petition in October. Americans are concerned that their technologies will suffer in the international market because of Chinese clean technology subsidies.
China “Ruined” Copenhagen. Perception that China ruined Copenhagen dominated the U.S. news early in the year but was softened by a more positive outlook following Cancun. Anxiety in Washington, DC regarding the accuracy of China’s CO2 data colored many debates on American participation in international climate negotiations all year.
Oil and Rare Earths. The oil spill in Dalian in July made big news in the United States as it came in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many comparisons were made, despite the enormous difference in scale between the two incidents. Rare earth elements (the spine of the clean technology industry) were another major concern that arose in 2010 in Washington. Many of America’s rare earth mines were shuttered decades ago when Chinese mines were able to produce more affordably. This year, China began restricting rare earth exports, at least partially for environmental reasons, forcing the United States to consider reopening many of its mines and how to deal domestically with the environmental effects of those mines.
In 2011 I hope that interest in China’s environment will continue in the United States, but I expect that we will see less on renewables, as stimulus money runs thin, and rising concern for more traditional pollutants and basic environmental governance in China (especially regarding water and air pollutants).
The 12th Five-Year Plan. Set to be released early 2011, the 12 Five-Year Plan will initially dominate energy stories as it outlines how China will meet its ambitious energy intensity targets. I expect nuclear energy will replace wind and solar as the big stories in 2011. Nuclear liability should be addressed in China in 2011, as it was in India in 2010. Because of the close energy business ties between China and the United States, liability laws in China are likely to be more sympathetic to the needs of American companies than India’s recent law, which exposes nuclear components suppliers to unlimited liability.
Soil Pollution Prevention and Remediation. China’s soil pollution survey was completed in 2009 and the draft Provisional Rules on Environmental Management of the Soil of Contaminated Sites was released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection for comment in December 2009. The problem is huge and significant in China’s development and construction boom, and little data has been publicly released from the survey. I expect that in 2011, we will start to see active management and enforcement, at least in major cities.
Water Quality and Quantity. Water has and will likely continue to be, the greatest environmental concern in China and abroad, given its transboundary nature. Turner suggests we will see more on control of and attention to nitrogen pollution in China’s waterways in 2011.
To chime in with your comments on what you feel were the biggest stories of 2010 and what you predict will dominate 2011, be sure to let us know below or on ChinaDialogue.
Linden Ellis is the U.S. project director of ChinaDialogue and a former project assistant for the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum.
Sources: Asia Society, ChinaDialogue, The New York Times, Pew Charitable Trust.
Photo Credit: “Factory in Inner Mongolia,” courtesy of flickr user Bert van Dijk.
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