The World's Biggest Polluter is About to Be Its Largest Green Energy Investor

In the midst of booming industrial growth, China has quickly risen to become the world's biggest polluter. But it turns out the industrial giant is also set to become the world's largest investor in green energy, as Chinese officials recently announced an estimated $275 billion plan to be implemented for the next five years by business and government entities in an attempt to clear up the air.

The great irony of the country's record-holding spot in levels of pollution as well as in green-energy investment is that efforts to counter-balance climate problems may come too late. 

The looming smog covering China's capital Beijing is filled with pollution from the area's 200 coal-fired plants and an estimated five million automobiles. The approximate concentration of pollutant particles in the air in Beijing alone is 900 parts per million, a shocking 40 times the World Health Organization standard for healthy breathing. 

These pollution problems are not just affecting people living under the smog China's in cities. China’s greenhouse-gas emissions have skyrocketed from about 10% of the world’s total in 1990 to nearly 30% in 2013, and, in 2000, China alone has contributed to two-thirds of total international growth in carbon-dioxide emissions. These figures indicate Chinese pollution is seeping into the atmosphere, and has become a truly global crisis.

At the same time, domestic activism to clean up China's climate is booming, and the government is not ignoring the calls. The country's blogosphere had a reported 2.5 million postings that mention the word "smog" in January alone. Professors at China's leading business schools have issued warnings that the pollution is sending thousands of the country's most important businessmen and intellectuals away from the city, or worse, sending them packing away from the country altogether. 

“You need to breathe, and so do I," Chinese billionaire and blogger Pan Shiyi has explained. "State leaders need to breathe, and so do ordinary people,” he noted, helping illustrate that pollution reduction is growing to become a pressing problem for Chinese people from all walks of life.

With these pressures in mind, it may not come as a surprise that Asia's giant has agreed to invest billions of dollars into cleaning up its act. But a $275 billion investment into green energy programs is no small drop in the bucket, despite the country's whopping $9 trillion (and growing) GDP. It's a serious investment equal to Hong Kong’s total GDP, and even twice the size of the country's annual defense spending.

The problem is, despite this record-breaking financial effort to clean the air in the coming years, the degree of damage done will be very hard to reverse. As America and Europe have done a decent job in cutting back emissions with investments in green energy (reducing their emissions by an estimated 60 million metric tons per year combined), China has been steadily been increasing its emissions by an estimated 500 million tons. It's not that the investment is not significant, but that it may be too little, too late. 

Still, some experts believe China has the ability, with the help of these large investments, to undo the damage. 

"China also has advantages in addressing its — and the world’s — environmental problems," experts have explained in The Economist.  "They are good at taking action on high-priority issues. China has a huge domestic market, cheap capital, and sunny, windy deserts ... It is the silver lining of a very dark cloud. If China cannot do it, no one can."

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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