National Geographic : 2011 Jun
• near Shanghai, paused by the photos of solar panels at base camp on Mount Everest and the portrait of her boss, Shi Zhengrong, named by Time as one of its "heroes of the environment." "It's not only a job," she said, a tear welling in her eye. "I have...mission!" Of course, that tear might have come in part from the air. Wuxi was among the dirtiest cit- ies I'd ever visited: e 100-degree-Fahrenheit air was almost impossible to breathe. e solar array that forms the front of the Suntech head- quarters slanted up to catch the sun's rays. Be- cause of the foul air, it operated at only about 50 percent of its potential output. , anecdote can take you only so far. Even data are o en suspect in China, where local o cials have a strong incentive to send rosy pictures o to Beijing. But here's what we know: China is growing at a rate no big country has ever grown at before, and that growth is opening real opportunities for environmental progress. Because it's putting up so many new buildings and power plants, the country can incorporate the latest technology more easily than countries with more mature economies. It's not just solar panels and wind turbines. For instance, some 25 cities are now putting in or expanding subway lines, and high-speed rail tracks are spreading in every direction. All that growth takes lots of steel and cement and hence pours carbon into the air---but in time it should drive down emissions. That green effort, though, is being over- whelmed by the sheer scale of the coal-fueled growth. So for the time being, China's carbon emissions will continue to soar. I talked with dozens of energy experts, and not one of them predicted emissions would peak before 2030. Is there anything that could move that 2030 date significantly forward? I asked one expert in charge of a clean-energy program. "Everyone's looking, and no one is seeing anything," he said. Even reaching a 2030 peak may depend in part on the rapid adoption of technology for tak- ing carbon dioxide out of the exhaust from coal- red power plants and parking it underground in played-out mines and wells. No one knows yet if this can be done on the scale required. When I asked one scientist charged with developing such technology to guess, he said that by 2030 China might be sequestering 2 percent of the carbon dioxide its power plants produce. Which means, given what scientists now predict about the timing of climate change, the greening of China will probably come too late to prevent more dramatic warming, and with it the melting of Himalayan glaciers, the rise of the seas, and the other horrors Chinese climatolo- gists have long feared. It's a dark picture. Altering it in any real way will require change beyond China---most im- portant, some kind of international agreement that transforms the economics of carbon. At the moment China is taking green strides that make sense for its economy. "Why would they want to waste energy?" Deborah Seligsohn of the World Resources Institute asked, adding that "if the U.S. changed the game in a fundamental way---if it really committed to dramatic reductions---then China would look beyond its domestic interests and perhaps go much further." Perhaps it would embrace more expensive and speedier change. In the meantime China's growth will blast onward, a roaring re that throws o green sparks but burns with ominous heat. "To change people's minds is a very big task," Huang Ming said as we sat in the Sun-Moon Mansion. "We need time, we need to be patient. But the situation will not give us time." A oor below, he's built a museum for busts and paint- ings of his favorite world gures: Voltaire, Brutus, Molière, Michelangelo, Gandhi, Pericles, Sartre. If he---or anyone else---can somehow help green beat black in this epic Chinese race, he'll deserve a hallowed place near the front of that pantheon. j The roads of China bear witness to the struggles of energies past and future. In Shaanxi Province coal trucks jam traffic for hours on their way to power plants near eastern cities. In Beijing a tractor trailer with two giant turbine blades is allowed to travel only at night as it rolls toward a wind farm 300 miles away in Inner Mongolia. China's growth opens real opportunities for environmental progress---not just solar panels and wind turbines.