25 March 2019

Will China Save the Planet?

Barbara Finamore
2018, 200 pages,
ISBN 9781509532643

Reviewer: Bridget Rosewell

This is a short review of a short book, whose optimism is not entirely convincing.  Finamore is at the Natural Resources Defense Council and has been operating in Asia since the mid-1990s.  She is engaged and knowledgeable and has been working on clean energy in China for decades.  Her thesis is that the top-down, 5- year plan-based authoritarian state is both capable of and willing to end a reliance on coal and drive innovation in both clean power and clean vehicles.

Innovation by fiat does not have a particularly good track record, though the enforcement of a new deliverable can obviously be achieved.  Even in her optimism, Finamore recounts the tale of how an instruction to replace coal stoves across a region without electricity and gas led to the enforced removal of the stoves, but nothing was available to replace them.  People froze but their air was cleaner!

However, there is no doubt that China has become dominant in solar power, and costs have been driven down as they have achieved scale. China now has 130GW of installed solar capacity and could reach 320GW by 2022, which is around Japan’s total current capacity.  Of course, China is a huge country so some of these comparisons may not be completely meaningful.  Nonetheless, the pace is extraordinarily rapid compared to what is happening in the rest of the world.

The book implicitly raises important questions about these plans.  For example, if saving the planet requires draconian and authoritarian regimes, how do western models of democracy survive?  For China, with still millions to pull out of poverty and the ability to leapfrog old technologies rather fast in the process, authoritarianism can be seen to deliver more than it costs.  For rich countries, that is less obvious.  There will probably be more losers and they will have a loud voice.  The potential to ignore them is more limited than in China. Part of the reason for the book is clearly a reaction to Trump taking the US out of the Paris agreement, although it might appear that in a more federated system such as the US many states will implement it anyway and move their economies in the same direction as China and with much less top-down cost.  Since this was not the function of this book, the comparison is not available but I hope somewhere somebody is doing it.

Secondly, I was concerned about the extent to which the statistics quoted were meaningful or real.  Installed solar capacity is not the same as operated capacity.  How much of the solar capacity is actually used and replacing coal use is much harder to measure than just construction.  Use requires the bottom-up engagement and agreement that really makes a difference.  All the evidence that we have so far suggests that innovation needs strong networks for diffusion and acceptance, and scope for experimentation and delivery.  To save the planet we will need more than just implementation of solar and wind energy or, indeed, moving forward on green finance.  I am also sceptical about what it means to say that China is leading in green finance when so much of their financial system is controlled, once more, from the top.  Providing incentive structures that work to create a context for all financial decisions is very different from a world in which stoves can be removed from households with no available replacement.

This book is a slightly disturbing paean to the planned economy, which over the last decades we have generally found to be inefficient and incapable of generating true innovation and richer societies.  The exception has surely been China, where the country has been used to authoritarianism for centuries.  Whether this is a model for the rest of us is less sure, but perhaps the main purpose of this book is to create a sense of competition, rather than a solution.