Wednesday, September 22, 2010

UPDATED--It's about M-O-N-E-Y, Mr. Friedman

Last week New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote another of his "Wow, China is awesome!" columns. This one is about how the Chinese are on top of climate change while the Americans are so caught up in partisan bickering that they have allowed an opportunity to slip out of their hands.

So far, so good. Nothing to disagree with there, at least as far as his impression of the US is concerned.

But Friedman takes comments by Peggy Liu (of JUCCCE) that the Chinese are running various clean energy pilot projects as a signal that the Chinese are serious about cleaning up their environment.

This is where I have to part ways with Tom. As someone who has,
for the past 16 years, lived in or traveled frequently to China -- not just the big cities, but the countryside as well -- I can only verify that things have become worse, not better. There are many things China could have been doing for the past decade or so to clean up its environment or to reduce its carbon footprint, but it hasn't done any of them. I'm sorry, I like China, I love the people, but the place is filthy.

Still Friedman manages to make one valid connection -- that China's clean energy efforts are all about "J-O-B-S". He's pretty close on that one, but while
J-O-B-S are certainly a nice side-effect, it's really more about M-O-N-E-Y. I've made these same assertions before on this blog:
Ultimately, Beijing sees great opportunity in the climate change movement. But contrary to outward appearances, the opportunity for China lies, not in cleaning up its environment, but in selling related technologies to foreigners.

Clean technology will be expensive, and a country facing a demographic time bomb in a decade or so cannot afford to waste a single percentage point in GDP growth to clean up its environment. China will, however, be more than happy to sell the necessary technology to those countries that are already on the bandwagon.
But don't take my word for it. Let's see how the Chinese government describes what it is doing. The following is a summary from China's 2009 Auto Industry Yearbook (a government publication) summing up the purpose of China's pursuit of "new energy vehicles":
新能源汽车行业有望为中国汽车提供赶超国际汽车先进国家的机会... 有望在全球新能源汽车产业分工中获取更大收益。


The hope of the new energy vehicle industry is that it will provide China with an opportunity to overtake countries with advanced auto industries ... the hope is that, in the division of labor in the new energy vehicle industry, [China] can earn more profit.
While this is just part of the summary paragraph, there's nothing in the the entire section on "new energy vehicles" about climate change or environmental protection. Though the term "energy saving" is used once or twice.

The point here is not to pile on China and accuse it of being duplicitous. China is actually being very clear about what it wants. The problem is when the Tom Friedmans of the world fly into Beijing, stay in five-star hotels and then proceed to interpret Chinese actions through their own worldview.

I think it's great that China is undertaking all of these pilot projects. This work desperately needs to be done, and much more could be done in the US if our political leaders were more focused on the good of the country than they are on their careers (and if voters would punish them for it).

But it is way too early to draw the conclusion that China is concerned about climate change. This is a country that is concerned more about growth than anything else. If things continue on their current course, China will get what it wants: M-O-N-E-Y.

And they'll continue to get it from the US.


I came across this article today, from a law professor at Beijing University, that supports this idea. The basic message of "China's green laws are useless" is that, while China's environmental laws are impressive, they have had no effect on the country's environment.


  1. Agree with you that growth and making money are more important than say-city recycling programs, more use of solar power here in Nanjing and Friedman has no real understanding of China IMO

  2. Yes...continuing on the theme of 'it's about the money,' you just can't beat the cheap BTUs that coal gives you. So long as coal continues to price significantly lower on a cost per BTU basis, don't expect significant changes to China's powergen base. Example...while a barrel of oil @ $75 will give you 5.8MM BTU, a ton of thermal coal for $90 will give you over 20MM BTU. This is why resource constraints, not climate change, will play the strong hand in ultimately changing behaviours....yes, it's all about the money.

  3. Thanks for those figures, Alex. Clearly the short-term economics come down on the side of ignoring environmental consequences.

  4. love your blog. hope you can get a wider audience.

  5. Thanks, Gregory.

    I don't really do anything to promote this blog aside from the occasional link on twitter. Since my topics tend to be more niche topics, I don't expect to have a lot of readers, just a handful of truly curious ones. :)

  6. I'm glad you wrote a piece on this. Friedman is smart, but he certainly has his own agenda at heart when it comes to these issues.

    However, I don't quite agree with your statement that China's focus on renewable energy development is all about the money. Its not to say that it isn't part of it, but I think the CCP's ultimate goal here is continued political control. They are developing these nascent industries, most of whom are state-owned enterprises, with generous tax and land incentives to give them a foothill in what they see to be potentially lucrative industries well into the future. And if the West, led by people like Thomas Friedman, continue to cheerlead China, that just gives them increased political cover from criticism back in New York, Washington, etc.

    And they are doing this in the belief that they can continue to subsidize these exports through continued currency control, and also that the West will be willing customers for these products once carbon legislation is eventually passed (given that we can't compete with their prices).

    For further evidence of this, just look to see what comes out of the Tianjin climate meetings slated to start next week. See

  7. Thanks, Paul.

    I agree that it's all about political control. Then again, we could say that's the main impetus behind everything the Communist Party does.

    My point was to say that, while jobs for Chinese may be a good thing that comes out of this push for dominance of new technology, even better (in the eyes of the Chinese) is the fact that they have a chance to further strengthen the state. The fact that it would be at the expense of foreigners is merely icing on the cake.

    Also, P-O-L-I-T-I-C-A-L C-O-N-T-R-O-L would have taken up too much room in my headline. :)

  8. So where does that leave your impression of JUCCCE these days? You think they're just being used?

  9. Paul,

    I really don't know enough about JUCCCE to form an opinion. I haven't looked into where there money comes from or where it goes.

    At a minimum, I think they raise important issues in China, and that's a good thing.


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