Is Asia up to the global warming challenge?

Clean technology for resource security and competitiveness

While anecdotal reports indicate China is building a new coal fired power station every week or so, its massive green infrastructure and technology plans, including unparalleled boosts to renewable energy, point to its quest for resource security as essentially framing its climate change action. Now importing more than half of its oil requirements, China like Japan is far from energy secure. And the insecurity extends to other critical commodities including freshwater (Wong, 2010 p 16). But few in the region are arguing for the environment to be put ahead of economic development. The smart strategy will be to align problem solving on the two fronts as China is now attempting.

China’s emissions abatement strategy is based on 2005 benchmarks and besides energy efficiency, emphasises increased utilisation of renewables and nuclear to 15% of the total energy mix and expanded forest coverage by 50 million hectares – an area 5 times the size of Tasmania.

Some in the West see a geopolitical implication in China’s rush to invest in renewable energy, a prospect they hope which will engage investment drivers for climate change action in their own countries. Just a few weeks before the Copenhagen Summit, American environmentalist Robert F Kennedy Jr wrote provocatively of “The New Arms Race”, raising the spectre of a dominant China working to free itself of reliance on foreign resources, by taking the opportunity of energy security and commercialisation of enabling innovation much more seriously than the US.

Kennedy contrasted the relatively creative and strategic GFC stimulus spending disbursed by China with the short term ‘quick hit’ approach of many OECD economies: “China’s economic stimulus package targeted 38% of spending on greentech, as compared to a miserly 12% of the U.S. stimulus program. By 2013, greentech will account for 15 percent of the Chinese GDP…. by 2020, China’s solar generation is projected to increase 20,000%” (Kennedy, 2009).

Set against the massive expansion of its energy sector, the Chinese renewable energy target of 15 per cent by 2020 by any comparable standard is both ambitious and transformative in its impact. Major solar players including BP Solar, GE and Evergreen have set up in China to take advantage of a market in rapid transformation. Over the past 12 months investment in renewable energy has taken off across the globe, but it has rocketed in the Asia-Pacific by 172% compared to 63% in Europe and 19% in the US (de Boer 2010).

Quite pragmatically China is investing massively in both fossil fuels and renewables and as some observers are noting this dual strategy is beginning to be reflected also in the corporate culture of the country: “One sign is a shift in criteria by which local officials are evaluated: promotion now depends not just on meeting production or investment goals, but energy and environmental goals as well” (Randolph, 2010). The corollary is a host of municipal initiatives in public transport, electric vehicles and hybrids, and new construction codes boosting energy efficiency.

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