For many environmentalists the standard image of modern China is its choked cities, oft quoted addition of a new coal-fired power station every week and the hard nosed negotiating tactics recently revealed by leaked audio tapes from the final day of the Copenhagen Summit, which confirmed that it was Chinese negotiators who put the kibosh on a more ambitious deal.
This image is pretty entrenched and will take years to fade away, particularly given the rapid expansion of the Chinese economy and its continued reliance on coal power. But over the past few months, in particular, something fundamental has changed. China appears to be going green.
Those in the know have long noted that China is one of the world's largest investors in clean technology and has the potential to establish itself as the a hugely influential low carbon hub, but over the past few months the China's green revolution.
Admittedly most of the reports about China's burgeoning low carbon economy emanate from government-backed newspapers, which, how shall we put this, are not exactly renowned for rigorous levels of impartiality. But even with this caveat taken into account the past few months has seen a remarkable flurry of activity that suggests those Chinese leaders who have said for years that their country understands the urgent need to cur b carbon emissions weren't lying.
In the last few weeks alone, we've seen Longyuan Group reveal that it plans to invest $13bn in renewable energy projects over the next five years, a number of companies announce new wind farm projects, work begin on a giant 10GW marine energy scheme, electric cars dominate the Beijing Auto Show, a host of Chinese clean tech firms pursue IPOs, and two leading solar companies, Suntech Power Holdings and Trina Solar, secure $11.72bn in loans from the China Development Bank.
What is significant here is the numbers involved. There are plenty of US and European clean tech firms with ambitious expansion plans in place, but not many of them can turn to their government and secure a share of almost $12bn in low interest loans to build up manufacturing capacity. Similarly, the UK may be home to the world's most advanced marine energy projects, but no one is talking about delivering 10GW of capacity anytime soon. If the figures being presented by the Chinese media are accurate, we are seeing a low carbon revolution on an unprecedented scale.
Moreover, it appears to be being backed by some serious legislative muscle. As Chinese premier Wen Jiabao memorably and somewhat ominously put it when announcing that he was willing to close some of the country's most polluting industrial plants in order to meet energy efficiency targets, the government is willing to use an "iron hand" to make sure this low carbon transition happens, and happens quickly.
A new wave of energy and climate change legislation is also reportedly winding its way through the Labyrinthine corridors of China's government and wide ranging renewable energy targets and incentives look set to be introduced during the summer. Meanwhile, carbon trading schemes are being trialed at a regional level and the government has signaled its desire to introduce tougher environmental laws.
The net result is that not only is China now the world' top clean tech investor, according to recent government figures new renewable energy capacity is growing faster than coal-fired capacity for the first time. Moreover, the same figures reckon low carbon energy sources, including nuclear, could supply a quarter of China's energy by the end of this year.
So why in that case does China continue to fiercely oppose any form of binding emission targets and is still widely regarded as the main road block to an international climate change treaty?
I recently spoke with one British green investor who predicted China's opposition to a binding deal at the Copenhagen Summit was part of a sophisticated gambit that will see the Chinese government stall the negotiations for as long as possible while simultaneously investing everything it can in building up the wind turbine, solar panel and electric car manufacturing capacity it needs to dominate the global low carbon economy. As soon as it has sufficient capacity in place it will sign up to an international deal, probably in South Africa in 2011, and begin selling the rest of the world the low carbon infrastructure it needs.
I've since asked numerous experts on the low carbon economy whether this scenario sounds plausible and not one has offered a dissenting voice.
Speaking to one civil servant within the Foreign Office, he recently said that the root cause of the failure to finalise a deal at Copenhagen was found in the failure to build sufficient confidence in the low carbon economy as a viable alternative to the current global economic settlement. China now appears intent on establishing that confidence, and if it is successful it could well leave the rest of the world trailing.
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