The NYT’s Choking on Growth Series

Starting this summer, and continuing this month, The New York Times has produced “Choking on Growth,” a series of multimedia-enhanced articles on the environmental costs of China’s development. The first article in the series , written by Joseph Kahn and Jim Yardley and released in late August, covered the usual topics, such as the desertification of the Hebei-Beijing region, provincial groundwater pollution, air quality in Beijing, and corruption. Though a few months old, some of the information in the article ties in with my previous posting on the potential advantages of “green subsidies” in China by raising the issue of Chinese energy efficiency:

Its [China’s] energy needs are compounded because even some of its newest heavy industry plants do not operate as efficiently, or control pollution as effectively, as factories in other parts of the world, a recent World Bank report said.

Chinese steel makers, on average, use one-fifth more energy per ton than the international average. Cement manufacturers need 45 percent more power, and ethylene producers need 70 percent more than producers elsewhere, the World Bank says.

China’s aluminum industry alone consumes as much energy as the country’s commercial sector — all the hotels, restaurants, banks and shopping malls combined, Mr. Rosen and Mr. Houser reported.

Considering that these industries obtain heavy subsidies from the state, it would seem a good guess that subsidization — aimed at production targets — is actually encouraging inefficiency. The writers continue,

Moreover, the boom is not limited to heavy industry. Each year for the past few years, China has built about 7.5 billion square feet of commercial and residential space, more than the combined floor space of all the malls and strip malls in the United States, according to data collected by the United States Energy Information Administration.

Chinese buildings rarely have thermal insulation. They require, on average, twice as much energy to heat and cool as those in similar climates in the United States and Europe, according to the World Bank. A vast majority of new buildings — 95 percent, the bank says — do not meet China’s own codes for energy efficiency.

In fairness, the new 8-to-10,000RMB/sq. meter apartments popping up in Tianjin and Beijing utilize such things as geothermal heating systems and Western-style insulated windows, and actually use this as a selling point, but, given the price, most city dwellers aren’t going to live in them. Instead, most people in big cities live in apartment blocks constructed in the 1990s and early 2000s, most which have the design flaws mentioned in the article. For instance, the apartment I live in, which was completed circa 2000, bleeds heat throughout winter and does little to keep the heat out in summer.

That said, I’ve also seen some progress during my nearly four years in China. The main building of the old campus of the university I work at, which was finished around 2003, has terrible insulation, whereas the buildings at the new campus, completed in late 2006 and fitted with insulated walls and window glass, are properly warm in winter and cool in summer. Unfortunately, the main downside of the new campus’ design is that the buildings utilize “modern” central air for heating and cooling instead of steam radiators and ceiling fans, a design choice that might render moot the effects of insulation improvements.

Returning to the articles themselves, one innovative thing about them is that each article features a Mandarin translation (in PDF) and a recording of someone reading the article in Mandarin. While I have doubts about whether Chinese people need to hear the articles for themselves to believe it — after all, they can see the effects with their own eyes — they nonetheless represent a form of outreach, and might also make the articles interesting as classroom discussion materials.

However, after reading through most of “Choking on Growth,” I’m left with a question. Are these articles and others like them in the Western press just intended as 2008 Olympics raspberries, or will the media keep up the scrutiny on China’s development after the Beijing Olympics?

CFLs in Developing Countries

cfl-bulb.jpgI went lightbulb shopping over the weekend and wound up looking through the stock of bulbs in the local Wal-Mart. Like Wal-Mart in America, Chinese Wal-Marts are pushing the compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs big time. And, given the environmental and economic benefits of switching to CFL or LED bulbs, we can all applaud Wal-Mart’s stance. (An aside: I really ought to check out other retailers and see if they’re also stocking CFLs in bulk.) The only problem is, as far as I can tell from looking at what’s on the shelf, Chinese customers aren’t buying CFLs in large numbers.

The reason may be simple: price. Good-quality Chinese incandescent bulbs can be bought for as little as 25 cents apiece, while CFL bulbs sell for $4-$5. While a Westerner might absorb the costs of getting a CFL because it pays for itself in the long run, for Chinese consumers, a single CFL is the same as the price of 3-4 homecooked meals or one nice dinner out. Assuming they have twelve bulb sockets in their home, if they replaced all of the bulbs in their home with CFLs, it would cost more than a month’s heating bill in an average house here in Tianjin.

This got me to thinking: of all the developing countries in the world, China, with its huge, rapidly urbanizing population, conspicuous coal pollution, and relatively low energy efficiency, is the country which stands to benefit the most from CFLs. (India would be a close second.) Yet the costs of buying CFLs make them prohibitive for the average working-class Chinese, and also deter all but the most green-minded middle- and upper-class consumers. So how to get Chinese people to buy them? Since the price of the bulbs is unlikely to drop in the short run, one answer may be to reduce the price CFLs for Chinese consumers through a government subsidy.

While many subsidies in the world today are anachronistic (Western farm subsidies) or ill-advised (infant industry protection), subsidies aren’t always a bad policy in the short run.* (See Malawi’s recent history of fertilizer subsidies as evidence of this.) Subsidizing lower CFL prices and other “green” purchases — cleaner cars, homes with proper insulation, recycled consumer goods — would also help to offset the massive environmental damage China has suffered while maintaining a growth-first economic policy. Since China is on record as being opposed to sacrificing economic growth in its production centers in order to improve the environment, promoting greener consumption could reduce the overall environmental impact of the Chinese economy as the government implements policies aimed at stimulating China’s service and retail sectors.

* The obvious caveat being that subsidies left in place over the long run can outlive their usefulness and even become perverse. China provides many examples of this, such as its overflowing steel reserves, which are the result of from relentless subsidization from 2000 on, and have produced many undesirable economic and environmental effects.

Update: After poking around in some local Tianjin shops, I’ve come to the conclusion that Chris Waugh (in comments) is right about CFLs being more common than my post suggests, though they’re still uncommon in some schools and larger businesses here in Tianjin. Strangely, most of the CFLs I’ve seen in shops and markets have had an ugly yellow tint like a cheap incandescent bulb. Chinese companies are probably churning out cut-rate CFLs to compete with the high-quality foreign brand CFLs.