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China, under pressure, takes a lead on going green

BEIJING - Forty years ago, a decade before China set on its path of economic reform and development, the three material necessities required before couples married were the bicycle, a sewing machine, and a wristwatch – symbolizing the family's wealth and status.
 
Ten years later, the three items became a black and white television, a refrigerator, and a motorcycle.
 
Another decade later, in the 1990s, those items were replaced by a color TV set, an air conditioner, and a cell phone.
 
This century, what was once known as the "san da jian" (in Mandarin, literally meaning the "three big things" a couple needed before they married) has become, well, just a long list of consumer goods – computers, wide-screen LCD televisions, camcorders, washing machines, cars, homes.
 
"When we decorated our home, we bought all the appliances at the time – air con [for] each room, a washing machine, a TV," said Tina Wang, a 32-year-old Beijing native who showed us her two-bedroom flat near the capital's Fifth Ring Road.
 
With all these new appliances plus a car, the Wang household exemplifies China's growing middle-class wealth – and its growing energy consumption, all a function of the country's accelerated industrialization and urbanization in the past three decades. 
 
This, of course, comes at a cost.

Surge in greenhouse gas emissions 
China's total greenhouse gas emissions have surged in the same time period.  From 1970 to 2007, the total amount grew over seven times, according to China and to report commissioned by the United Nations and a Beijing university, "Sustainable Future, Towards a Low Carbon Economy and Society." 

In 2007, China overtook the United States as the world's highest CO2 emitter – although crucially its per capita emissions remain far below that of developed countries. Moreover, just as with China's economic growth, most of its energy consumption still comes from heavy industry, not from the transportation or residential sectors.
 
"Maybe sixty, seventy percent of Chinese energy consumption is still in the industrial sector," said Deborah Seligsohn, principal adviser of the China Climate, Energy & Pollution Program at the World Resources Institute. "If you look at the amount of energy that Chinese households use per square meter of housing space, it's much lower than in the West."
 
But that's all bound to change as economists and social scientists expect nearly 400 million Chinese to migrate from the countryside into cities over the next 20 years, more than the entire population of the United States. No doubt all these folks will want to be able to buy air conditioners, computers, and cars, too, just like the Wangs.
 
For the time being, though, industrial energy efficiency remains a key focus for the Chinese government. That -- and energy security.
 
"China has an energy problem more severe than the rest of the world," said Li Junfeng, the deputy director general of the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission – also known as the NDRC, the Chinese government's main economic policymaking body. "The cost of energy was far lower when most developed countries industrialized in the 1970s. Now we face fewer energy sources and higher prices."
 
Having enough power to fuel its modernization, then, remains of paramount concern to officials in Beijing. "If you recall way back to when there was the Sino-Soviet split, the big thing for the Chinese was they lost their access to Soviet oil so trying to use domestic sources is very, very important to the Chinese and has been for many, many decades," Seligsohn said.
 
The Communist Party communicated this sense of urgency as early as 2005, when its Central Committee approved the 11th Five-Year Plan, which introduced energy-consumption related goals. More recently, officials have begun to focus on climate change as well.
 
The country, which relies mostly on coal right now for its power, has set ambitious targets for 2020, when it wants to generate at least 15 percent of its energy from alternative sources like wind, solar, nuclear, and water. 
 
In fact, China outspent the U.S. by almost twice the amount on clean energy investments last year. In 2009, the former sunk $34.6 billion in low-carbon energy development industries – compared to the $18.6 billion spent by the U.S.  
 
For more on how China's attempts to race ahead with the development of renewable energies – and the challenges that might keep it from winning, watch Adrienne Mong's report as part of "Beyond the Barrel: The Race to Fuel the Future" on CNBC Thursday night at 8pm Eastern.   

In the meantime, watch this clip to see the ambitions of one "green" visionary take shape in Dezhou, aka Solar City.