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Review from Washington

I’ve spent the last few days in Washington, DC meeting mostly with people working on US-China environmental relations.  Tuesday I met with Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and we had an exciting conversation about the biggest China environmental stories covered in the US in 2010, and what we hope to see in 2011. I was inspired to write this post based on our conversation. This is of course neither definitive nor exhaustive, but merely my perspective on how things look from Washington. Please let me know in the comments what you feel were the biggest stories of 2010, and what you predict will dominate 2011. 

China is winning the clean energy race.  Energy was the big story in 2010.  Studies show that the US will need to renovate or retire virtually all of its power plants by 2050, and China must build a modern energy sector to serve a growing population.  Both countries emphasized their intentions to build a clean energy economy in 2010 and almost immediately competition was dubbed a “race”.  Soon after it was declared a two-party race, it became evident that China was winning. 

China’s clean energy investment is two times greater than that of the United States, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report published this year. The news has centered upon China’s ability to make sweeping changes to domestic energy markets, in stark contrast to the United States’ inability to pass climate legislation. Most notably in 2010, China passed a regulation requiring that a percentage of all electric company profits be used for energy efficiency every year.

Energy “Coopetion”.  Perhaps as a response to fears of “losing”, public opinion in the US focused on new and existing energy cooperation, and on market fairness.  The US-China Clean Energy Research Center, signed in 2009, was officially launched in 2010 and is likely to formalize a great deal of on-going cooperation on energy between the US and China.  In December, Jonathan Silver, Executive Director of the US Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program, spoke at a conference in San Francisco and described the developing energy relationship between China and the US as “coopetition”—the two countries have complementary markets, and have a lot to learn from each other, but will compete in US, Chinese and international markets to sell clean technologies. 

Concerns about the fairness of the market, initially because of changes in China’s government procurement laws discriminating against foreign clean technology companies, peaked with the US Steel Workers’ petition in October.  Americans are concerned that their technologies will be harmed in the international market because of Chinese clean technology subsidies.

China “ruined” Copenhagen.  Perception that China ruined Copenhagen dominated the US news early in the year, but was softened by a more positive outlook following Cancun. Anxiety in Washington, DC regarding the accuracy of China’s CO2 data coloured many debates on American participation in international climate negotiations all year.  


The oil spill in Dalian in July made big news in the US as it came in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Many comparisons were made, despite the enormous difference in scale between the two incidents. Rare earth elements (the spine of the clean technology industry) were another major concern that arose in 2010 in Washington.  Many of America’s rare earth mines were shuttered decades ago when Chinese mines were able to produce more affordably.  This year, China began restricting rare earth exports, at least partially for environmental reasons, forcing the US to consider reopening many of its mines and how to deal domestically with the environmental effects of those mines. 

In 2011 I hope that interest in China’s environment will continue in the US, but that we will see less on wind, solar and CO2, as stimulus money runs thin, and rising concern for more traditional pollutants and pollution governance, especially regarding water and air pollutants.

The 12th Five Year Plan, to be release early 2011, will initially dominate energy stories as it outlines how China will meet its ambitious energy intensity targets.  I expect nuclear energy will replace wind and solar as the big stories in 2011.  Nuclear liability should be addressed in China in 2011, as it was in India in 2010.  Because of the close energy business ties between China and the US, liability in China is likely to be more sympathetic to the needs of American companies than India’s recent liability law, which exposes nuclear components suppliers to unlimited liability. 

Soil pollution prevention and remediation should be a major story in China 2011. China’s soil pollution survey was completed in 2009 and the draft Provisional Rules on Environmental Management of the Soil of Contaminated Sites was released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection for comment in December 2009.  The problem is huge and significant in China’s development and construction boom, and little data has been publicly released from the survey.  I expect that in 2011, we will start to see active management and enforcement, at least in major cities. 

Water quality and quantity have been, and are likely to continue to be, the greatest environmental concerns in China (and arguably around the world).  Jennifer Turner suggests we will see more on control of and attention to nitrogen pollution in China’s waterways in 2011. 

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