July 13, 2007

Fuel for the Economy

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In conversations with Chinese about “the environment,” I’ve often heard this black & white ideology: it’s a choice between destroy the environment in order to live a modern lifestyle, or save the environment but thus need to go back to living in caves. It’s been a frustration that this extremely simplistic philosophy (which is by no means limited to China) is also represented by the economic model that China has followed to keep up its explosive growth in GDP.

As we’ve heard time and time again, the economic growth in China in the 90s was the fastest in the world, and has only increased since then. Less well-known is that total energy consumption has risen even more quickly: by an annual average of more than 11 percent over the past five years. To put in contrast how much its economic growth is dependent on energy: China uses around three times as much energy per unit of GDP as the US, and nine times as much as Japan, as reported by a recent article in The Economist.

It’s clear from walking around Beijing, which is littered with shops dedicated to every major merchandise brand in the world, that China’s perception of what it means to be a developed nation is intimately tied up in the purchase of material goods. With more than a billion Chinese not yet at a level to make as many of those purchases as they would like, it’s no wonder that the demand for breakneck economic growth is both bottom-up and top-down in China. Thus my first step towards understanding the Chinese psychology towards environmental issues has been to understand that the growth of the Chinese economic model has been fueled by increased use of energy without a perceivable increase in efficiency, and that many do not consider that a significant problem.