Bruce Usher: How China Will Save the Planet

The Columbia Business School professor thinks the country could be a world leader in solar energy production.

This post was contributed by Bruce Usher, a professor at Columbia University Business School and the former CEO of EcoSecurities Group plc. From 2002 to 2009, Professor Usher built EcoSecurities into the world’s largest public carbon credit company.


In 2007, China became the leading emitter of CO2, thereby passing the United States as the world’s biggest contributor of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. China’s rapidly growing economy, which is primarily fueled by coal-fired electricity, is now responsible for almost one-quarter of all CO2 emissions globally, and is forecast to increase to one-half the world’s emissions by 2050. When it comes to the problem of climate change, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that China is the problem.

But China might also be the solution. There are two ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases; the top-down approach is to negotiate a global cap that reduces over time and forces countries to cut emissions. The bottom-up approach is to find cheaper alternatives to products that emit greenhouse gases, and let the market guide consumers to switch to less polluting alternatives. The bottom up approach is obviously very appealing – no need to get 195 governments to agree on a global emissions cap – but today there are no cheaper alternatives available that allow for the wide-spread replacement of coal fired electricity. Which is where China comes back into the picture.

Solar energy is an abundant resource that is a potential replacement for coal fired electricity. The only catch is that it is expensive—the cheapest solar pv is about $0.15 per kwh, or some three times the cost of electricity from coal-fired utilities. But, the price of solar panels has plunged nearly 50% in the past year alone, driven by aggressive manufacturing in China, and is predicted to continue to fall in the years ahead.

It’s a virtuous circle—as the cost of solar pv falls, it becomes competitive in the world’s sunniest and most expensive countries for electricity (think Mexico), which increases manufacturing volumes, thereby leading to lower prices in the next tier of sunny countries, and so on, until one day solar pv is competitive with coal fired electricity in the US and China.

Is it realistic for the cost of solar energy to decline another 65% or more? China’s superb manufacturing capabilities, supported by aggressive industrial policy from Beijing, can lead to dramatic results. Ten years ago, China made 1 percent of the world’s solar panels; by 2008 it was the leading producer with a 32% market share. This was a result of several years of heavy investment by the Chinese in clean energy; in 2009, China invested $35 billion in clean energy, double the $19 billion invested in the US. There’s no certainty that China will maintain this level of investment, or that it will inevitably lead to competitive pricing of solar power, but the trend is favorable.

Earlier this year, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham worried that “every day that we delay trying to find a price for carbon is a day that China uses to dominate the green economy." That might be bad news for the American economy, but it’s good news for climate change. China might save the planet after all.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

People who engage in fat-shaming tend to score high in this personality trait

A new study explores how certain personality traits affect individuals' attitudes on obesity in others.

Pixabay
Mind & Brain
  • The study compared personality traits and obesity views among more than 3,000 mothers.
  • The results showed that the personality traits neuroticism and extraversion are linked to more negative views and behaviors related to obesity.
  • People who scored high in conscientiousness are more likely to experience "fat phobia.
Keep reading Show less

4 anti-scientific beliefs and their damaging consequences

The rise of anti-scientific thinking and conspiracy is a concerning trend.

Moon Landing Apollo
popular
  • Fifty years later after one of the greatest achievements of mankind, there's a growing number of moon landing deniers. They are part of a larger trend of anti-scientific thinking.
  • Climate change, anti-vaccination and other assorted conspiratorial mindsets are a detriment and show a tangible impediment to fostering real progress or societal change.
  • All of these separate anti-scientific beliefs share a troubling root of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance.
Keep reading Show less

Reigning in brutality - how one man's outrage led to the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions

The history of the Geneva Conventions tells us how the international community draws the line on brutality.

Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. Painting by Adolphe Yvon. 1861.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Henry Dunant's work led to the Red Cross and conventions on treating prisoners humanely.
  • Four Geneva Conventions defined the rules for prisoners of war, torture, naval and medical personnel and more.
  • Amendments to the agreements reflect the modern world but have not been ratified by all countries.
Keep reading Show less