China’s leaders, mostly engineers, wasted little time debating global warming. They know the Tibetan glaciers that feed their major rivers are melting. But they also know that even if climate change were a hoax, the demand for clean, renewable power is going to soar as we add an estimated 2.5 billion people to the planet by 2050, many of whom will want to live high-energy lifestyles. In that world, E.T. — or energy technology — will be as big as I.T., and China intends to be a big E.T. player.
“For the last three years, the U.S. has led the world in new wind generation,” said the ecologist Lester Brown, author of “Plan B 4.0.” “By the end of this year, China will bypass us on new wind generation so fast we won’t even see it go by.”
I met this week with Shi Zhengrong, the founder of Suntech, already the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. Shi recalled how, shortly after he started his company in Wuxi, nearby Lake Tai, China’s third-largest freshwater lake, choked to death from pollution.
“After this disaster,” explained Shi, “the party secretary of Wuxi city came to me and said, ‘I want to support you to grow this solar business into a $15 billion industry, so then we can shut down as many polluting and energy consuming companies in the region as soon as possible.’ He is one of a group of young Chinese leaders, very innovative and very revolutionary, on this issue. Something has changed. China realized it has no capacity to absorb all this waste. We have to grow without pollution.”
Greening is a seriously smart business strategy, because it cuts risk and improves the performance of the inputs of production. We'd better get to it sooner, rather than later, or we're going to be puffing hard to catch up.