Editor’s note: Arrol Gellner is currently on an extended stay near Shanghai. Following is one of a series of columns comparing the built environments of America and China.
America or China: Think you know who’s greener? Americans have long painted the Chinese as wayward polluters and environmental cretins. But the more you know about China, the less certain your answer becomes.
In the three decades since the "Opening," the Chinese have indeed run roughshod over their environment when it suited their development plans. Then again, back when our own stage of development roughly matched China’s present one — perhaps around 1880 or so — our environmental policies were hardly more enlightened.
But that was then and this is now. How do the Chinese actually fare in terms of green thinking? In many ways, they’re already ahead of the United States. The Chinese government is acutely aware, for example, that a transportation future built on the internal-combustion engine is untenable — an unpopular conclusion that our own government has evaded for decades.
For their part, the Chinese have done without internal-combustion vehicles for far longer than we have, and they’ll likely have less trouble bidding them adieu. Nor is this as distant an event as Americans might imagine — electric bicycles and scooters have already been part of the Chinese scene for years, and electric cars are undoubtedly not far behind.
China’s concern for a dire environmental future has also spurred policies that may surprise some Americans: In many stores, for instance, plastic shopping bags now carry a charge of 20 jiao (perhaps 40 cents in terms of American buying power), encouraging typically thrifty Chinese shoppers to bring their own bags.
Some cities have set aside wetlands parks, mainly to educate the population on the environmental value of such areas.
China’s low-tech power generation is another shortcoming that takes a drubbing from American observers, and indeed, the majority of Chinese generating plants are — like our own — fired by dirty coal. Yet in a typical no-win critique by the West, the Chinese have also been thoroughly lambasted for their flagship zero-pollution hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam.
Whether their power source is dirty or clean, however, it must be said that the Chinese use electricity with deliberate frugality. Commercial buildings have used energy-efficient lighting for nearly as long as ours have, and in wider applications.
What’s more, in China, America’s own de facto efficiency standard, the compact fluorescent bulb, is already being superseded by newer light-emitting diode (LED) technology.
Though ironically an American invention, the Chinese are now ranking producers of LEDs, and they’ve widely applied their own product to traffic signals, signage and roadway lighting. So much for the home-court advantage.
Unlike most Americans, the Chinese have also overwhelmingly adopted energy-efficient lighting in their homes — partly out of patriotism, but mainly out of thrift. For the same reason, rooftop-mounted solar hot water heaters have been a familiar sight on the Chinese skyline for decades.
And while the Chinese have gratefully taken to electricity-gobbling air conditioners in their often torrid climate, they’re notably sparing in their use — sometimes uncomfortably so for foreign visitors.
When it comes to consumption, the historically impoverished Chinese have always been more parsimonious than the West. They currently gobble the world’s resources not because they’re profligate, but rather because they’re a vast country with an awful lot of catching up to do. By all indications, though, they won’t be playing catch-up for long.