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Let's call off the green energy space race with China

Over at The New Yorker, Evan Osnos has been writing about China's "green-tech space race" with the United States.
Potential Twitter version: Bushies, asleep at switch, drunk on oil, missed boat."  

Meanwhile, guess who's taken up the emerald green mantle?

It might be startling to realize that China is far outpacing the U.S. on green-energy investment."

He is picking up on a recent report by the Washington-based think tank, Center for American Progress: "We Must Seize the Energy Opportunity or Slip Further Behind."

Osnos is, I think, one of the finest correspondents writing from China today. But here I beg to differ. Or at least urge a bit of a reframing.

Yes, China is and has been doing far more on the environmental front than most foreigners realize. Lord knows, this is a point worth emphasizing, and I've certainly beat the drum here myself.

But let's put this in perspective: First, as a general point, China has had ambitious green goals for several years, especially on energy efficiency, but implementation still lags behind reality. Before we cheer, or worry, too much about Beijing's presumed green-technology progress, let's see what actually gets built. Large earmarks for infrastructure, green or otherwise, are particularly susceptible to local corruption. (The shiniest government office buildings in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province, were built out of something called the"poverty reduction fund.") Alas, lately we've seen a relaxing of green construction standards in China for the sake of putting economic stimulus money to work quickly. In sum: Setting budgets and targets is easy; follow-through is harder.

Second, on the particular matter of green-energy investment, pretty please stop putting so much faith in the framing of the Center for American Progress. I like CAP. They do good work. But they also have a long-standing habit of beating up on U.S. policy by pointing out that even China is doing more. I'm not against beating up on the U.S., or against giving kudos to China when due. But I am wary of how this formula can lead to exaggerated estimations of what China is in fact doing. (A few years back, CAP put out similar statements when Beijing announced lofty, and as yet unmet, energy efficiency targets.)

Lastly, and most importantly, I think that highlighting the competition angle could ultimately be counter-productive, as fun as it is to envision a U.S. vs China jolly green smackdown. Stressing a rivalry could ultimately lead -- not necessarily in Osnos’s hands, but in looser, more politically-minded interpretations -- to the impression that the race for green energy is somehow a zero-sum game. That any progress made by China (again, let’s be careful to avoid exaggeration here) is somehow threatening to the U.S. Like if the Soviets got to the moon first; oh no. It’s us or them; only one racer breaks the ribbon; get off our green lunar pathway!

Some might argue that Americans do best when their competitive instincts are aroused. But I tend to agree with Charles McElwee, an environmental lawyer in Shanghai whom Osnos cites and whose insights I've long found valuable: Fanning the flames of us-vrs-them-ism -- in the context of global issue that isn't so much a race to win as to survive -- could backfire. It could undercut political support on Capitol Hill for cooperative efforts, technology sharing, and perhaps even climate-treaty negotiations.

For too long, on climate matters, the U.S. and China have been stuck in a dusty stalemate, with both sides refusing to budge first -- especially with regards to seriously considering carbon caps -- while they eye each other as threats, and competitors. Somehow this Gunsmoke scenario needs to end.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

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