Co-authored for the Heritage Foundation.
A cloud of photochemical smog from China drifted into Japan this week. The story highlights the fact that air pollution in China is getting worse—despite lamentations that the “world is passing us by” in clean energy.
That quote came from Steven Chu, President Obama’s then-Secretary of Energy, in 2009. Chu tendered his resignation last Friday in a letter suggesting that those who disagreed with him were living in the “Stone Age.”
Progressives have long complained that China puts more money in clean energy initiatives than the United States. Former Senator Jeff Bingaman (D–NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee until he retired this year, complained that the U.S. “cannot compete on a level playing field with countries that have strong industrial policies when our own policies have been so inconsistent and erratic.”
President Obama, speaking shortly after the media had begun covering the Solyndra scandal, stood by his support for clean energy on the basis that the U.S. could lose ground to other countries. “I will not cede the wind or solar or battery industry to China or Germany because we refuse to make the same commitment here,” he said.
But China’s investment in clean energy hasn’t yielded improvements in its air quality. The Air Quality Index, used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, measures airborne particulates up to a level of 500, which is 20 times higher than the World Health Organization air quality standard. The particulate matter in Beijing exceeded measurement capabilities twice in January.
China’s pollution problem is not a carbon dioxide (CO) problem—CO is invisible, odorless, and non-toxic. China’s problem is with toxic pollution—the sort that we in the U.S. have reduced dramatically since 1980. Since China is unwilling to clean up truly toxic emissions when effective and affordable technology for doing so has already been commercialized, what makes anyone think it really cares to reduce non-toxic CO emissions? Certainly not its track record.
In spite of China’s spending on renewable energy, its CO emissions have far outpaced those of the United States. In 2010, the U.S. had decreased its emissions from 5.65 billion tons in 1998 to 5.6 billion tons. Meanwhile, China emitted 8.95 billion tons in 2010, up from 3.65 billion in 1998. The latest numbers have the U.S. on target for less than 5.4 billion tons in 2013, while China is set to reach 9.7 billion tons or more, though it is hard to estimate as China no longer releases its emissions information to the public. China is, by far, the world’s largest CO emitter.
Whatever government-subsidy race China is running is a race we don’t want to win. Politicians who think China’s energy policy is a model for the U.S. need to look at some pictures of Beijing.