The Chinese solar industry is poised for a second boom. With its stake in the solar manufacturing sector set in stone, China is now looking to rapidly expand domestic production of solar electricity. In August, the national government approved its Golden Sun subsidy program, through which it will cover 50 percent of initial costs for grid-tied solar installations and up to 70 percent for off-grid systems. They also set a national goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020.
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This rapid push for clean energy by the world’s most populous nation is an excellent sign, but as things currently stand, China’s newfound renewable zeal is but a green flash in an otherwise dark and sooty sky. China has officially overtaken the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Two-thirds of China’s cities lack clean water to drink and only one percent of its urban population is breathing air that meets EU safety standards. Air pollution is getting so bad in some areas that the rain won’t fall. And “cancer villages” are just one example of how unchecked pollution is devastating China’s local populations and ecosystems.
China has become a paradox. It’s a contradiction no better exemplified than by this 2008 Washington Post report on the pollutive tendencies of a polysilicon plant in China’s Henan Province. The implications of accounts such as these can be unsettling for Westerners steeped in Chinese imports. Many of the “earth-saving” solar cells so proudly lining our roofs have come at the expense of lives and livelihoods.
China’s blatant hypocrisy cannot go on. Yes, fast expansion of solar power is a great benefit to our collective effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but China is also the world’s largest emitter of GHGs and shows little sign of slowing down. In the end, the Chinese contradiction is equally as detrimental to the rural rice farmer in Hunan province as the cornhusker in rural Nebraska. The world desperately needs China to lead, not only in renewable energy manufacturing and production, but in the reduction of GHG emissions and water and air pollution. China has become a bastion of success for much of the developing world, a world eager to build infrastructure, eager to grow wealth and notoriety. But at what cost?
In the United States and Europe, we are well aware of the long-term costs of rampant dumping and pollution, and we must encourage China to learn as well. A meaningful difference in global climate change cannot be made without active Chinese participation. In China, sick and angry people are already rising up, but it will take broader cooperation from government and private enterprise, including North American companies operating in the country, to renew China’s natural beauty and healthy environment.
The U.S. and China are expected to lead the next phase of the solar revolution, but it must be bigger than a booming solar industry. We must remember that renewable energy is first and foremost about combating climate change, not about dollar signs. The U.S. and China must lead that fight on all fronts, from creating solar energy to providing for healthy and thriving populations.