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Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson visits the tomb of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune at the Huabei Martyrs' Cemetery, in Shijiazhuang, China. (Globe files/Globe files)
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson visits the tomb of the Canadian doctor Norman Bethune at the Huabei Martyrs' Cemetery, in Shijiazhuang, China. (Globe files/Globe files)

Lessons learned from the greening of China Add to ...

Let's begin with the blindingly obvious, shall we? Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's comments in China questioning the value of democracy in the war on climate change showed a breathtaking naiveté, not to mention spectacular tone deafness.

Upon his return this weekend to the shores of the sad, disadvantaged democracy in which he lives, Mr. Robertson admitted he was guilty of a "poor choice of words" when he said, in lamenting the lack of progress countries like Canada and the United States have made on the climate front compared to China: "You can question how worthwhile democracy is in a lot of countries right now."

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We can only imagine how thrilled the families of veterans who fought and died for the freedoms we enjoy must have been with Mr. Robertson's foreign musings.

Equally clear is how, in his remarks, the mayor seemed content to overlook the communist regime's abysmal record on human rights. And then there is its actual environmental record: China remains one of the planet's worst polluters.

Now, with those admonishments out of the way, it should be noted that the mayor's clumsy handling of this matter helped obscure and diminish a legitimate point: China has become a positive global force on the climate front. And while there is much to condemn in many of its policies and practices, there is also much to admire about the stunningly aggressive approach China has taken in becoming the world leader in renewable energy.

Consider:

China now has a million people working in its clean-energy industry. Why? It makes half the world's wind turbines and supplies half of its hydroelectric projects. It boasts the greatest number of hydropower stations on the planet and is building more nuclear plants than anyone else.

Last year, China invested $34.6-billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors, putting it ahead of all other countries, according to Pew Research. Second was the United States at $18.6-billion. China is set to spend $738-billion in the next decade developing clean sources of energy.

In 2009, China announced that it will reduce its CO2 emissions as a proportion of each unit of GDP by 40-45 per cent of 2005 levels by the end of this decade.

Over the next decade, the country will build the most substantial ultrahigh-voltage transmission grid anywhere in the world. One transmission line between Hubei, a province in central China, and Shanxi, a province to the north, will boast the highest capacity in the world, capable of transmitting 1,000 kilovolts over 644 kilometres.

The country plans to expand its railway network to 120,750 km, up from 77,280 km by 2020. Cost: $300-billion. And 12,880 kms of that will be comprised of high-speed, long-distance rail that runs on electricity.

Last year, China accounted for 24 per cent of the total global investment in the climate- change sector, up from 6 per cent in 2004.

It will invest $15-billion over the next decade to drive development of energy-saving cars.

We could go on. The point is that China is doing much on the climate front worth applauding. As one U.S. politician recently remarked in The New York Times, the country is changing from the world's factory to its clean technology laboratory.

If you want to believe this is all about China wanting to save the planet you can. Personally, I don't. I think it has much more to do with a desire not to have to rely on dwindling supplies of expensive foreign oil than saving the polar icecaps. While establishing domestic energy security, China is taking the lead, economically and competitively, in the next big global industry.

So that's the good part.

There is evidence, however, that much of China's green energy growth has occurred, in large part, because of subsidized loans and cheap land deals sanctioned by the ruling Communist party. Its clean-technology exports have also been boosted by a currency kept artificially low by the government. China has also placed severe restrictions on the export of rare earth materials essential for renewable energy technology. In other words, the regime in Beijing is rigging the game in its favour.

Meantime, the Chinese public has had no say on the government's energy plans and the consequences - good or bad - they have had for their communities. Which brings us back to Mr. Robertson and the downside of democracy.

China deserves enormous credit for aggressively pursuing a less oil-dependent future while much of the rest of the world dawdles and debates the issue. We should seek to emulate that ambition and purposefulness, but never at the cost of the public's right to have a say in the matter.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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