JUICE: China & CA Build the World We Want

3 Jul 2017

Early in this decade, China was busy pursuing a plan to maximize its coal resources by building giant “coal bases” in its inland areas where the mineral is mined. I detailed the plan in a series of articles for Inside Climate News in 2014.

China aimed to use its vast coal deposits, widely viewed as “money in the ground,” to produce electricity, gasoline, and synthetic natural gas far from the nation’s major population centers along its eastern coastal plain.

The justification was that by moving most coal use away from its big cities, like Beijing, it would clean up the air.

The articles, based on my book The People’s Republic of Chemicals, warned that the plan would quickly and irretrievably wreck the world’s climate well ahead of when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted climate catastrophe.

Fast forward to today and China’s approach to energy and the environment has seemingly turned on a dime. It is now the world’s leading producer of solar panels and teeter totters with the U.S. for the lead in wind energy. It is quickly emerging as the world’s major player in the closely related electric vehicle and energy storage battery fields.

In short, China’s approach looks more and more like that of California, which by many measures is the most innovative and economically successful patch of geography on Earth.

That’s why working arm-and-arm with China, the world’s master at achieving economies of scale in manufacturing, the two can build the sustainable world people on both sides of the Pacific have been yearning for.

CC15-27 Juice photo

Conditions during China’s Airmageddon during the winter of 2013-14. (Photo originally published by the Christian Science Monitor.)


Things began to change in China in a big way after the Airmaggedon during the winter of 2013-14. At that time, the whole coastal plain of the nation, home to hundreds of millions of people, was gripped by hazardous air pollution for weeks on end. Party officials and common people were subjected to levels of particle pollution that were unsurpassed in recorded history, forcing people to remain indoors as panicked officials rushed to shut down steel mills, curtail driving, and cancel public events at considerable economic expense.

Airmaggedon galvanized President Xi Jinping, who had just assumed office in spring of 2013, to make cleaning up China’s air a true priority for the first time. Xi understood that China did not need to repeat the learning and technological development curve that California went through to do so, but instead could leapfrog to clean energy technologies and leave the dirty dust of coal behind.

Xi also knew that by doing so China could convert its growing engineering prowess, as well as its well established manufacturing might, to quickly become a major producer and exporter of clean energy technologies, expanding its economic riches.

The economic promise of becoming a leader in clean energy technology was highly important because Xi stated upon assuming office that what kept him up at night was how to integrate millions of rural residents into the nation’s modern economic sector at a time when mechanized agriculture was rendering traditional farming obsolete. Meanwhile, the need to maintain social stability in China’s cities, where air pollution and environmental degradation spurred regular protests, some of them violent, loomed large.

Air pollution in China was hardly new before Airmageddon. A 1994 video of Deng Xiaoping, called “steel hard” and a “world class smoker” by Time magazine when it crowned him “Man of the Year” in 1986, depicted the retired leader gazing from atop the Shenzen International Trade Building across the smog-shrouded skies of the new economic zone he founded. It was that zone, and others like it, that Deng, “the Great Architect,” championed to turn China into a manufacturing giant with an emerging middle class after years of isolation and economic deprivation under Mao.

Air pollution resulting from the coal-energized urbanization and industrialization of the world’s most populous nation was simply tolerated by the communitarian-oriented populous for much of the next two decades under Deng’s dictum: “Be brave. Walk with faster steps.”

Deng’s paradigm was so powerful that when Al Gore lectured Chinese officials in 1997 about the need to control greenhouse gases, showing them the famous carbon dioxide curve he dramatically presented later in his movie An Inconvenient Truth, he was met with an icy reception.

Twenty years later, history has stood the world on its head. Xi’s China is now the environmental champion leaning into the future with practicality and Trump’s America is now the environmental retrograde clinging with ideological rigidity and stubborn pride to the past.

That’s why it’s so important for California to work closely with China to advance clean energy and continue to build a new clean energy economy.

—William J. Kelly


Editor’s Note: The People’s Republic of Chemicals is summarized in the video at the China File.

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