In some parts of China, the air is thick with soot from coal-powered plants, and reported asthma cases are skyrocketing in the countryside and cities. The pollution is so dense that it's travelling across the Pacific Ocean and winding up in the forests along Washington's Olympic Peninsula. These are undeniable facts that are haunting China.
However, there is another side of China that few are aware of. It has entered the clean renewable energy market in a big way and has set some bold targets for the coming decade.
In March, Beijing announced that it will build a 100-megawatt solar-electric power plant in Dunhuang, a city in the northwestern province of Gansu. The facility will be the largest solar-powered generator in the world, easily surpassing Germany's reigning champion - the 12-megawatt Solarpark Gut Erlasee near Arnstein in Bavaria.
Spain, Israel and Australia have all put their hats in the ring to out-sun the Dunhuang facility, with good reason: There is a lot of room in the trillion-dollar global energy market for a suite of clean alternative energies, and many countries are lining up and setting some aggressive goals to break away from the clutches of the 19th-century technologies of oil, gas and coal.
And it is not a moment too soon. Coal combustion generates half the electricity used by the United States and releases about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That leaves little room for everyone else's emissions, since the world's forests can only absorb about 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.
In addition to the Dunhuang facility, China also has long coastlines with abundant untapped wind resources. The government is keen to develop wind farms to offset the country's dependency on inexpensive coal, which is polluting rural communities and cities while adding billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - all fuelling the greenhouse effect.
Currently, China ranks sixth on the world's list of wind-generating capacity and it is not resting on its laurels. By 2010, it will have installed 30 large wind-powered projects, adding five million kilowatts of clean alternative power into the grid. And by 2020, China plans to lead the world in wind-generating capacity by adding another 30 million kilowatts of wind power to its arsenal.
Clearly, the United States wants in on this race as well - about $8-billion has been infused into the burgeoning wind market in 40 U.S. states in the past two years alone. But what will Canada's response be?
Canada currently ranks 12th on the world list of top wind producers. Clearly there are a lot of untapped resources just waiting to be harnessed along Canada's coastline - the longest in the world.
British Columbia has some very impressive windy shores that could easily tap into existing wind-generating technologies, following the recent lead of Nantucket Sound of Massachusetts by becoming the second off-shore wind farm in North America. Moreover, B.C. could also take advantage of new coastal technologies, such as wave generators, similar to those already in use in Australia, to become energy self-sufficient by 2025. And more wind farms could easily be installed throughout the Prairie provinces, along the Great Lakes, in the James Bay and Hudson's Bay region, into the Maritimes.
There are also great opportunities for Canada in the burgeoning solar-panel market, where $7-billion has already been invested in North America alone. Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta are ideal sun-rich locations. South of the 49th parallel, Arizona and New Mexico are perfectly poised to become world leaders in generating electricity from solar-powered panels.
Beyond the headlines of its unique environmental challenges, the truth is that China is now taking a lead by setting some bold alternative energy goals. Are we in Canada ready to roll up our sleeves and show them how capitalism can not only enter the race but win it?
Dr. Reese Halter is a professor of botany at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., and the author of Wild Weather: The Truth Behind Global Warming. He will be speaking at the University of Toronto's Sanford Fleming Building at 6 p.m. Thursday.