Chinese puzzle

China’s not known as green, but a Canadian expert on Chinese renewable energy says we should watch and learn.

China's not known as green, but a Canadian expert on Chinese renewable energy says we should watch and learn.

It seemed safe to say China has a bad reputation on environment. It has 20 of the world's most polluted cities. It's crowded. There was an 11-day traffic jam on the Beijing-Tibet highway. Eleven days! (And I thought Clam Harbour was bad on sandcastle day.) And all the elasti-crap merchandise in our landfills is made there.

But when I said as much to You-Zhi Tang, he shot back, "I thought it was Canada that had a bad reputation!" Touché. He adds that most Chinese see Canada as green and pristine, but Europeans scoff at our woolly self-perceptions, especially after we embarrassed ourselves in Copenhagen.

As director of the Canada-China Environmental Cooperation Council, Tang is more knowledgeable than most on the subject. He's been working for three decades---first as a civil servant and then as a consultant ---on renewable energy projects in China and Ontario. He's also a bit of a Haliphile---he did his PhD at Dal from 1982 to 1987, and has a brother and uncle here.

"Of course the pollution situation in China is bad," he grants me. "I stay there a week or two and I miss the blue sky." He attributes the pollution to the population, noting that while China's greenhouse gas emissions surpassed those of the US four years ago, China's population is 4.3 times greater. So, per capita, the United States emits about four times more than China.

Canada is in the same ballpark. And all that elasti-crap we import to North America? Yeah, it's only fair we share responsibility for that, since people in China don't enjoy that kind of throwaway consumption.

"Canada is not doing well in emissions control," Tang observes. "So when we are criticizing China we have to be realistic and fair. Imagine trying to manage 10 million people in a Canadian city; you couldn't do it without major pollution."

The reality is that carbon emissions are trending upward, not downward, in China and the US, and Canada, despite our Kyoto commitments. But Chinese emissions have been rocketing upward, in synch with the nation's economy, since about 2000. No one knows for sure if and when any of these countries will get things under control, but projections don't have Chinese emissions peaking until 2030 at the earliest, and maybe not until 2050.

And yet, Tang tells me, there is much we can learn from China. "In central China, solar hot water is typical," he says. "More than half of apartment buildings use it, and China is number one in the world in that." He says China, a country with comparatively limited space and resources, is also first in making solar panels, and second in total megawatts produced by wind. Despite, or perhaps because of, its environmental challenges, China has emerged as a world leader in renewable energy.

It had the equivalent of a green energy act seven years before Ontario became the first Canadian province to create one. Perhaps it's the international pressure that is driving this industry, or perhaps it's good old-fashioned communist-capitalist ambition. Tang says it's just necessity. "If they don't do something they'll kill themselves." He notes that China, despite having the world's largest coal industry, is a net importer of the stuff. "Some of the top decision makers realize this can't go on."

Lacking the same obvious environmental crises, Canada has fallen far behind China in developing and especially implementing new renewable energy technologies. "We have good university research," Tang says, "but the products are shelved; they never get to market." Whereas companies like China Wind Power have made billions implementing renewable technologies in the last few years, Canadian renewable energy companies tend to work on a much smaller scale. The larger ones have rarely kicked the government subsidy habit.

Tang calls for a national approach to energy policy. While the Chinese government has fully committed itself to renewable energy, Tang says Canada's feds haven't really considered national energy strategy or programs. Too many times he's seen provincial premiers meeting with national Chinese politicians, and no Canadian federal presence.

Most of all, he thinks Canada simply needs to get active about emissions reductions. Tang recalls the words of Toronto mayor David Miller after returning from China. "The Chinese don't wait," Miller told the Toronto Star. "They act."

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