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From Red China to Green?

A Times columnist says that China's decision to 'go green' should spur the U.S. to do the same

By Thomas L. Friedman

Most people today would guess that when historians look back at 2008 and 2009 decades from now, they'll say that the most important thing to happen in this period was the Great Recession.

But I'm not so sure. If we manage to continue stumbling out of the current economic crisis, I think future historians may look back and decide that the most important thing to happen in the last 18 months was that Red China decided to become Green China.

China's leaders have decided to go green out of necessity. Too many of their people can't breathe, can't swim, can't fish, can't farm, and can't drink clean water thanks to pollution from the country's thousands of factories that rely on coal and oil.

Unless China powers its growth with cleaner energy systems, and more businesses like software design and engineering, with fewer smokestacks, China will die of its own development.

And remember what we know about necessity: It's the mother of invention. And when China decides it has to go green out of necessity, watch out. You'll not only be buying your toys from China, but your next electric car, solar panels, batteries, and energy-efficiency software as well—and that's not good for the U.S. and our economy.

Another Sputnik?

I think the Chinese decision to go green is the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik—the world's first Earth-orbiting satellite. Sputnik's launch stunned America: It convinced President Eisenhower that the United States was falling behind in missile technology, and it spurred us to make massive investments in science, education, infrastructure, and technology. One eventual by-product of this push was the Internet.

Well, Sputnik just went up again: China's going clean-tech. And that means that America's view of China—that China is trying to leapfrog us by out-polluting us—is out of date: China is actually going to try to out-green us.

Right now, China is focused on low-cost manufacturing of solar, wind, and battery technology and building the world's biggest market for these products. It still badly lags behind U.S. innovation.

But research and innovation will follow the market to China. In fact, 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."

Sputnik set off the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy was determined to beat the Soviets to the moon. And in 1969, we did. Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn't yet joined the Green Technology Race. It's like Sputnik went up and we think it's just a shooting star.

China's leaders wasted little time debating global warming. They know the Tibetan glaciers that feed their rivers are melting. But they also know that even if climate change were a hoax, the demand for clean, renewable power will soar as we add 2.5 billion people to the planet by 2050. In that world, E.T.—or energy technology—will be as big as I.T., or information technology. And China intends to be a big E.T. player.

According to a recent report, China will be able to slow the growth of its greenhouse emissions much faster than commonly assumed because of its rising investment in wind and nuclear energy and its new emphasis on energy efficiency.

"For the last three years, the U.S. has led the world in new wind generation," says the ecologist Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0. "By the end of this year, China will bypass us on new wind generation so fast we won't even see it go by." I met recently 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 in Wuxi on China's east coast, nearby Lake Tai, China's third-largest freshwater lake, choked to death from pollution.

'Grow Without Pollution'

"After this disaster," says 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. China realized it has no capacity to absorb all this waste. We have to grow without pollution."

Of course, China will also 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, China is 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.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, December 14, 2009)