Industrialize now, clean up later – that’s long been the philosophy behind Asia’s booming economies. Dirty air, foul water, and hellishly overcrowded cities have threatened to choke the region's impressive prosperity. But the tide is starting to turn. “The dynamic in China is unbelievable,” says Mark Clifford. “Chinese manufacturers are changing the world in solar, in wind, in electric cars”.
Clifford is the author of The Greening of Asia: The Business Case for Solving Asia's Environmental Emergency. In his book, Clifford writes about the environmental devastation that has come with Asia’s recent period of extraordinary growth, and what businesses in China, India, Japan, Korea and other countries are doing to lessen the impact.
“What is happening in China right now in the clean tech area, the environmental area, is real,” Clifford continues. “When one looks at the track record of China since 1978 reforms began, it’s extraordinary. Wind power innovator Goldwind and electric car maker BYD are good examples of companies that have embraced the opportunity of a green economy, he says.
Stella Li, Senior VP of BYD, agrees. “The difference is now China has money, China has resources,” she says. This gives Chinese companies both the technology and the will to pressure their government into moving off of coal and into wind, solar and battery storage. “It’s reliable, it’s working, the technology is ready. Change!”
As hundreds of millions of China’s citizens move out of poverty and into the middle class, BVD is poised to provide them with not only the personal EVs they clamor for, but also busses and trucks. “In the next ten years, China will be the biggest market for electric vehicles,” Li predicts, “So there’s a lot of opportunity. “
And the Chinese government is ready to lend its support. “China has got a lot of money, and they’re throwing it at clean tech,” says Clifford, “because they see this as an engine of growth for the future.
“This is a growth area; it’s jobs, it’s money, it’s leadership, it’s global leadership. And I think we’re seeing this in the policy area as well.”
Unfortunately, there’s still a long way to go to clean up the environmental messes of the past. “The problem confronting China is staggering,” says Orville Schell of the Asia Society.
“They had several decades of really reckless development, which did some destruction which is not going to be so easy to repair.” As much of 25% of the nation’s water has been made toxic, he reports. “That’s going to take a long time to clean up.”
The governments of some other Asian countries lag behind China, either unwilling or unable to back greener policies. India, for example, isn’t moving towards sustainable energy anytime soon. “India has a lot of really dirty coal,” Schell points out. “Cheap, easy and dirty. So I think India may have a very difficult time reaching this sort of initial phase of rapid development that we now see China sort of coming to the end of.”
“The private sector can really solve problems,” where governments can’t deliver, says Clifford. He cites the example of Manila Water, a Philippines company that stepped in to help supply water to the citizens of its fast-growing capitol. “If government policies can work with private sectors and work with civil society, private businesses can often solve really granular problems - like getting water to your house so when you turn on the tap water comes out.”
Economic growth aside, Asian nations face more existential threats from the effects of climate change. The Asia Society has mapped the effects of distant melting glaciers, says Schell, and “it's not a pretty picture. You lose a good chunk of China, all of Shanghai, the Yangtze Delta… many people in the poorest countries will be affected, both by rising sea level and also by diminished flows of rivers. “
“This is no kind of a small-scale problem,” he warns. “This is basic plumbing for billions of people…this is why it's so important that the US and China, if they do nothing else, lean into this one.”
Changing weather is also a matter of life and death for people in Bangladesh, Burma and the Philippines. “They are literally on the front lines of climate change,” says Clifford. “This is one of the great moral challenges of our time as well. And we forget that, that it is the people who are the poorest, who did the least to cause this problem, who are the most vulnerable.
Is there reason for hope? Clifford thinks so. “I believe in human ingenuity and human spirit,” he affirms. The newly formed partnership between China the U.S., and their dual commitment to reducing greenhouse gasses, is a promising sign.
“After we’ve tried everything else, we usually do the right thing. Not always…at least we’re starting to slowly turn the ship.”