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China leading the world in clean economy development

October 15th, 2010

(This piece by Andrew Winston, green business consultant and author of Green Recovery and
Green to Gold (with Daniel Esty)  first appeared as part of a series on the smart grid at Harvard Business Online.)


Andrew Winston

Creating a clean economy will not be easy. It will require sustained, consistent, and large-scale investment across many sectors, including transportation, building systems and appliances, energy generation, and of course the electric grid itself. We will need new, more intelligent software and hardware to manage the new demands on the grid.

We’ll need a smarter grid, one that will both communicate in real time with customers’ devices to help manage peak demand and manage the inflows of renewable energy and plugged-in electric cars. But this is not a single pursuit; it’s the connective tissue in a network of new technologies and energy systems. These are multi-trillion-dollar markets, so the opportunities for the countries and companies that lead the charge will be vast. And some governments, especially in China and Germany, are taking this challenge much more seriously than others.

At the country level, I see two core indications of leadership and commitment to the clean energy economy:

(1) the amount of capital invested by both the private and public sectors and,

(2) the implementation of an aggressive policy framework that supports the economy-wide shift.

On both fronts, a few countries, but China in particular, are going for the gold.

According to a pithy report from Deutsche Bank titled “The Green Economy: The Race is On”, in the years 2000 to 2009, the U.S. invested (public and private) about $67 billion in clean technology. Similarly China spent $72 billion and Germany $38 billion. However, as a percentage of GDP, China, Germany, and even Brazil are investing at a rate three times greater than the U.S. On the specific issue of smart grid investment, another report estimates that the U.S. and China far outpace the rest of the world with an estimated $7 billion each in spending in 2010 alone (PDF). Companies like IBM, Siemens, GE, Cisco, and HP have noticed this investment — and plan to get a piece of the business.

The U.S. economic stimulus package, technically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), is really kicking in now. ARRA provides tens of billions of dollars for energy efficiency, R&D investment, and new transmission and smart grid investments. According to a recent report in Time Magazine, the Obama administration has turned the Department of Energy into “the world’s largest venture capital fund.”

This level of investment should not be taken lightly, but the stimulus is short-term. China is doing things differently, making longer-term, sustained commitments that are much larger. The country is already in the process of building 16,000 miles of high-speed rail (that’s roughly, oh, 16,000 more than the U.S.). And China is bringing together 16 state-run companies to put one million electric cars on the road within a few years.

But it was the country’s ten-year plan that made some jaws drop. Between now and 2020, the country will invest 5 trillion yuan in the clean economy. That works out to about $75 to $100 billion per year for 10 years running (smart grid investment alone is estimated at $60 to $100 billion over the next decade). Imagine the U.S. Congress passing the equivalent of the highly controversial stimulus package 10 times over (not likely).

Since the $100 billion in stimulus spending is significant, it’s hard to argue that the U.S. is not investing in the future. It’s the second aspect of green economic leadership — building a strong climate and carbon policy framework that supports the economy-wide shift — where the U.S. falls short.

Deutsche Bank’s report suggests that countries need a policy regime that provides “transparency, longevity, and certainty” to increase investment and get private money off the sidelines. The report lists eight national policy elements that it deems critical, including having a concrete emissions target and a renewable electricity standard, among others. Only Germany and China have put all eight policies in place, while the U.S. has only implemented one in the form of some tax benefits. Unsurprisingly, Deutsche Bank concludes that, “the US is falling behind in the race to develop new technologies, industries, and jobs as the global economy moves towards a low carbon future.”

Finally, as an indication of how serious China really is, the country has built the largest solar and wind production industries in the world in just a few years. The government is supporting its renewable energy industries so aggressively and lowering their cost of business so much, that it’s likely the country is breaking World Trade Organization rules on fair play.

Even if that’s true, you have to admit that China is in the clean economy race to win it. Is the U.S.?


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