Most people would assume that 20 years from now when historians look back at 2008-09, they will conclude that the most important thing to happen in this period was the Great Recession. I'd hold off on that. If we can continue stumbling out of this economic crisis, I believe future historians may well conclude that the most important thing to happen in the last 18 months was that Red China decided to become Green China.
Yes,China's leaders have decided to go green — out of necessity because too many of their people can't breathe, can't swim, can't fish, can't farm and can't drink thanks to pollution from its coal- and oil-based manufacturing growth engine. And, therefore, unlessChinapowers its development with cleaner energy systems, and more knowledge-intensive businesses without smokestacks,Chinawill die of its own development.
What do we know about necessity?It is the mother of invention. And whenChinadecides it has to go green out of necessity, watch out. You will not just be buying your toys fromChina. You will buy your next electric car, solar panels, batteries and energy-efficiency software fromChina.
I believe this Chinese decision to go green is the 21st-century equivalent of theSoviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik — the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite. That launch stunned us, convinced President Eisenhower that the U.S. was falling behind in missile technology and spurred America to make massive investments in science, education, infrastructure and networking — one eventual byproduct of which was the Internet.
Well, folks. Sputnik just went up again:China's going clean-tech. The view ofChinain the U.S. Congress — thatChinais going to try to leapfrog us by out-polluting us — is out of date. It's going to try to out-green us. Right now,Chinais focused on low-cost manufacturing of solar, wind and batteries and building the world's biggest market for these products. It still badly lagsU.S.innovation. But research will follow the market.America's premier solar equipment maker, Applied Materials, is about to open the world's largest privately funded solar research facility — in Xian,China.
"If they invest in 21st-century technologies and we invest in 20th-century technologies, they'll win," says David Sandalow, the assistant secretary of energy for policy. "If we both invest in 21st-century technologies, challenging each other, we all win."
Unfortunately, we're still not racing. It's like Sputnik went up and we think it's just a shooting star. Instead of a strategic response, too many of our politicians are still trapped in their own dumb-as-we-wanna-be bubble, where we're always No. 1, and where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, having sold its soul to the old coal and oil industries, uses its influence to prevent Congress from passing legislation to really spur renewables. Hat's off to the courageous chairman of Pacific Gas and Electric, Peter Darbee, who last week announced that his hugeCaliforniapower company was quitting the chamber because of its "obstructionist tactics." All shareholders inAmericashould ask their C.E.O.'s why they still belong to the chamber.
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., andChinaintends to be a big E.T. player.
"For the last three years, theU.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,Chinawill 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 inWuxi, nearbyLake 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.Chinarealized it has no capacity to absorb all this waste. We have to grow without pollution."
Of course,Chinawill continue to grow with cheap, dirty coal, to arrest over-eager environmentalists and to strip African forests for wood and minerals. Have no doubt about that. But have no doubt either that, without declaring it,Chinais embarking on a new, parallel path of clean power deployment and innovation. It is the Sputnik of our day. We ignore it at our peril.