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A Rising Green-Tech Tide Will Lift All Boats

• March 19, 2010 • 5:00 AM

In a Miller-McCune.com Q&A, Asia watcher Christina Larson questions the zero-sum mentality in which green-tech advancement elsewhere somehow hurts the United States.

As energy legislation stacks up in the U.S. Congress, those who would limit carbon emissions and boost green technology see a new line of attack. It’s time to think in terms of an “Earth Race,” they say, pointing to reports of large, targeted investments in green-tech by several Asian countries.

Advocates of green-tech funding, including the Breakthrough Institute (see Miller-McCune.com Q&A with Teryn Norris), see a Chinese ascendancy in green tech. Losing confidence in the United Nations’ efforts to curb carbon emissions on a global scale, these proponents frame the debate in competitive and technological terms reminiscent of the Cold War, suggesting the U.S. needs to give the effort attention similar to the 1960s drive to put a man on the moon.

Others, among them Christina Larson, a journalist and fellow with the New America Foundation who has written extensively on China and Southeast Asia, say framing green-tech innovation as a race is not only simplistic but ultimately counterproductive.

Larson is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and The Washington Monthly. Her articles also have appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe and The New Republic. She is a Swartz fellow with the New America Foundation.

Miller-McCune.com caught up with her between trips.

Miller-McCune.com: You’ve taken issue with people who have suggested the United States should worry about recent increases in investment by Asian countries in developing a green-tech industry. Why do you think framing it as a “race” is a bad idea?

Christina Larson: I take issue partly with framing it as a race and partly with the assertion that China is winning the race. I think as context, there was a great article in The Washington Post by two veteran China reporters that looks at the way in which China is being used as an all-purpose boogeyman. It’s very politicized. I think when we talk about clean and green technology, there are so many facets of the industry that it’s really difficult to say one country could be winning.

China has certain advantages in terms of relatively low labor costs and other advantages that have made it the world’s factory. The fact that that is also happening with equipment that we’ve recently labeled green tech shouldn’t be that surprising. It doesn’t represent anything new, per se. It does represent the fact that Beijing has been smart in investing and building up the infrastructure to take advantage of a new kind of product that there’s a global market for. It’s not like the U.S. is losing something by that.

The New York Times has run a series of articles by a reporter out of Shanghai named Keith Bradsher that’s documented China’s progress in terms of green-tech manufacturing. It’s now the top manufacturer of certain kinds of solar panels and wind turbines. I suppose you could say it’s winning in that respect.

M-M: Why do you think many journalists and advocacy groups seem to be embracing the race analogy?

CL: I think that Thomas Friedman and others, when they talk about a green-tech race, one of their incentives is that they’d like to see the U.S. Congress devote more money to research and development for potential breakthrough green technologies. It’s not necessarily an aim I disagree with. I think that advancing that need by appealing to patriotism and painting China as a new Sputnik, a sort of Cold War rival, is maybe not the most straightforward way of making that case.

Framing it as a race seems to imply that one side wins and the other side loses. Quite often it’s the case that if you’re not talking in nationalistic terms, there are synergies and mutual benefits. One example is that as China has ramped up solar cell production, it’s also brought down the global prices for solar panels. If I’m able to purchase and install solar panels in my backyard in Washington, D.C., I’ll be paying a lower price because China has increased its manufacturing capacity. It’s hard to say who wins in that sense.

Do I agree that China has ramped up certain aspects of green-tech manufacturing? Yes. Do I believe the Chinese government is more serious than in the past about pursuing some certain domestic environmental domestic goals? Yes. Do I think that those two facts mean that China is winning in some big, undefined but scary way the so-called green-tech race? No.

I agree with some of the assertions that are being made. It’s just the über-narrative. As most über-narratives, your alarm bell should go off when a business story is given this immense geo-political significance. The business story is usually on the front page of the business section …

If China were to green its economy faster than the United Sates, which I am not saying is likely to be the case, but if China were able to do that, I would say thank God for the planet. I don’t think we lose by that.

M-M: Jobs are probably the most visceral argument used by those who are concerned China will dominate in green tech. Do you think the U.S. will continue to have an advantage with high-tech manufacturing jobs?

CL: A lot of the jobs that will be created in terms of installation will happen wherever things are installed.

In terms of high-tech manufacturing, the closest parallel I know about is the airline industry. Manufacturing big aircraft is the pinnacle of high-tech manufacturing. And China has one of the fastest-growing domestic air travel industries in the world. But most of the passengers still fly on Boeing or Airbus, and the reason is that the companies that possess that technology still put a lot of limitations on any having anything manufactured in China because of a concern for intellectual property rights.

For the last two decades, China has funded a very ambitious program to develop it’s own aircraft industry and so far it hasn’t been successful to any point comparable to Boeing or Airbus. That’s a case where China has big ambitions and a lot of money and it hasn’t surpassed its Western competitors. Could the dynamics change in the future? Anything could change in the future.

M-M: As others note, China and other Asian countries are increasing their R&D spending in a big way, so their high-tech ability may increase dramatically in the coming years.

CL: Sure. China has 1.3 billion people. The statistical average is they’re going to have a bunch of geniuses in that country. Sure, it’s important. But I think the airline is an example that money alone doesn’t indicate you’re going to get the end goal you’re looking for.

This is one of the things that is hardest to talk about with green energy. It’s this new jargon we invented in the last few years. It’s like you invented one word that is supposed to apply to everything from swimming to a train. Swimming is kind of a fitness thing and what’s important is that you know how to do the stroke and that you’re relatively fit. And a train depends on railroad tracks and the question is who will win the fitness and train race. They’re both forms of locomotion. In some ways, green tech has become like that. It’s such a big issue. We’re just grappling. It’s all connected in some way in terms of a goal, but the components that enable that goal will be hugely different.

M-M: Most people writing on this topic note the U.S. will continue to have an advantage in research and development because of problems with intellectual property rights in China.

CL: Yes. In terms of technology, places with stronger intellectual property rights have an advantage in attracting the business and the capital. I’ve talked with a lot of business leaders who have said they would be hesitant to fund new projects in China for fear that they would lose their intellectual property.

Another aspect of the green-tech economy will be the development and commercialization of new technologies. That’s something that currently Silicon Valley has advantages in, as it has had advantages in other kinds of tech development in the past.

It’s notable that about 90 percent of the solar panels that China’s producing are for export. So if you’re looking at this in terms of jobs, it means one thing — there’s manufacturing jobs in China – but if you’re talking about who is actually a leader in terms of being representative of what the green future should be, that figure points to something else — for the moment China is playing a role in servicing the green aspirations of other countries.

M-M: Speaking of tech clusters, such as the Silicon Valley, at least two are being developed in China and more are being planned. Do you think they could give China first-mover advantage in green tech?

CL: I think there are probably very specific things in which either China or the U.S. or other countries could have an advantage. And certainly being the first mover is an advantage. Actually, if you really get down to it, a lot of countries in Europe like the U.K. and Germany are really far ahead of the United States in at least implementing green technology. Somehow that hasn’t worried us because it hasn’t whipped up the same sort of national sentiment.

I haven’t been convinced that China has first-mover advantage. I spend a lot of time with environmental groups that have offices in Beijing and they’ll talk about how China has been making more environmental progress than it’s been given credit for in the United States. They have fairly ambitious targets to reduce certain pollutants, but they still have a lot of environmental problems that they are in the midst of trying to clean up. People who are on the ground in Beijing really have a sense of the muddled reality.

So whenever I hear, especially in the Western press, quotes about China moving at lightning speed, I think of all the examples I know. China moves in fits and starts, and there’s a lot more obstacles in terms of implementation than outside observers often recognize.

M-M: What do you think of the analogy that’s been seen in the press that the U.S. may be trading its dependency on foreign oil for a dependency on solar panels made in China?

CL: Look, the thing about alternative energy is it’s not like oil. Even if we bought the wind turbines from China, they can’t cut off the spigot. OK: “The government of China has declared there will be no wind and solar energy today.” [And we say] “Shoot, we’ve got no sun, no wind, no oil.” Of course, this is not how it’s going to work!

M-M: It seems that the recent brouhaha over Google searches and censorship in China might indicate this will be a problem for China going forward. Do you see China’s centralized government and control of information as a plus or minus when it comes to development of green tech?

CL: I think ultimately it’s a minus. One question would be about the ability of the Chinese government to spur domestic innovation and another would be the conditions set by the Chinese government to attract or repel foreign entrepreneurs and companies interested in sharing research with Chinese partners.

In the latter case, certain policies of the government in control of information flow and restrictions it puts on foreign companies, some of which Google brought to light, these things do not please Western countries. Western countries are willing to make certain concessions when operating in China, but there are definite limits.

It terms of domestically funded research, people still see the U.S. and western Europe as top research destinations. China has strong universities, but they aren’t world class …

I was struck in the State of the Union that President Obama said something to the effect that America will not accept second best … There’s a lot of reasons that Americans feel anxious about their own financial situations and the country’s place in the world. A lot of those fears and anxieties weren’t brought about by China, they won’t be changed by China, but they are projected onto China.

I do think one thing is a valid concern. Some states would like to turn shuttered car manufacturing facilities into new green-tech manufacturing facilities. Those particular local officials who would like to do something here and are disappointed to learn it could be done more cheaply in China are rightly feeling anxious about China. But that’s different than saying that the country as a whole should feel anxious.

One example is the wind farm in Texas that late last year announced that it was going to be using some wind turbines that were manufactured in China. It was a partnership between the U.S. and a Chinese company. And Chuck Schumer, a senator from New York, recommended blocking this project from receiving stimulus money. If this project goes through, it would create about 300 U.S. jobs. You could extrapolate that it would create more than that in China. Are we upset about this project? To me, I think, great. It seems good for the environment, good for the economy, for the local economy. But if your aim is to paint China as a bad guy — China is gaining more in terms of jobs than the state of Texas is. … You can see what you want to see in these situations. It’s like the global green-technology economy is a giant Rorschach test. You can find in it what you want.

That example is also telling us how interconnected the U.S. and China are on many things, including the global green-tech economy.

M-M: I’m sure you’re aware of the recent report from the National Science Board about the U.S. slipping in investment in R&D while Asian countries are surging. Can the U.S. assume it will retain its leadership role when these countries are expending so much more in research and development?

CL: How much the U.S. — both the government and private companies — invests in research and development is a critical issue for our economy and for our ability to develop green technology as well as other types of technology innovation. I think it’s more useful to compare America’s investment in R&D today versus American’s investment in R&D 10 years ago versus projections for what America’s R&D should be as opposed to comparing America’s R&D to China’s R&D. The money is used differently; it’s going to different things. It’s like comparing my growth curve to your growth curve. But I can sympathize with the desire to spur the U.S. Congress into acting on something faster.

M-M: You’ve written about the success of U.S.-Chinese partnerships in various sectors. Could you give us an example of where you’ve seen this working to the benefit of both countries?

CL: Sure. In 2006, China launched a program to improve the energy efficiency of its top 1,000 energy-consuming enterprises. China’s economic ministry set the targets and then it turned to Lawrence Berkeley National Labs in California for assistance in designing aspects of program implementation, including the energy reporting system. So far, most of those companies seem on track to meet their targets. What’s significant here is that although both the Chinese and American labs are government affiliated, the heart of this partnership was an exchange between scientists and experts.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking with practitioners at the EPA, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley, about their work, and they don’t talk about their work as though as it’s some symbol for some big U.S.-China relationship. They talk about the particulars of what they’re doing — how they can improve a monitoring system for sulfur dioxide. They see themselves as scientists doing their jobs, not as sort of envoys for the United States trying to beat or ensure the U.S. isn’t beaten by China. I think that’s an important attitude to maintain.

M-M: We haven’t talked about the need to use green tech to address climate change.

CL: The desire to mitigate climate change is one of the reasons we’re having this conversation. If you’re talking about climate change — that’s definitely a reason that more green tech installed in more countries is a win for the planet. When you talk about climate change, there’s no win or lose nationally. Either we all win or lose.

For all the media coverage you see about a race, you talk to people in China and they say, “What? Are you crazy? We don’t think it’s a race from over here. We’re just minding our business and trying to sell our products.”

The narrative that takes hold in the U.S. and the narrative that takes place in other countries, in this case China, about the same set of events is often very different.

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Joan Melcher
Joan Melcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Missoula, Montana. Her work ranges from travel magazine articles to stories on breaking research.

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