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Are We Really In An Energy Race With China?

Nowadays, it seems like every third Thomas Friedman column is about how the United States is engaged in a green-tech competition with China—one that, much to his chagrin, we seem to be losing handily. His argument's not totally groundless. China really has put more effort (and money) into developing cleaner energy technologies than we have. So have plenty of countries, like Germany and Denmark. And, if you're trying to nudge the United States onto a lower-carbon path, invoking the specter of China isn't a terrible idea, rhetorically speaking.

At the same time, though, this notion that we're in a race with China to see who can develop solar panels and wind turbines the fastest isn't really accurate. If China zooms ahead and figures out how to make really cheap wind turbines, that doesn't hurt anyone—it just makes the enormous task of cutting global carbon emissions that much easier. And, likewise, as Christina Larson reports in a great Yale360 article on the subject, we're more likely to see specialization: China will likely continue to dominate in low-cost manufacturing, while the United States focuses more on the innovation side—something China's still not as well-suited for (at least for the time being):

At present, America still has significant advantages — including the world’s leading university system and the entrepreneurial culture and venture-capital spigots of technology hubs, particularly Silicon Valley. “Intellectual property rights have done a lot to hamper China’s development of green technology,” says Linden Ellis, U.S. director of nonprofit China Dialogue. “People would rather come to Silicon Valley and develop a technology where they know it will be protected by the law, right down to every line, than go to China and try to develop a technology there where maybe the components will be cheaper and there is a lot of interest, but people do not trust that their findings will be protected.”

Similar concerns have, for the past two decades, grounded Beijing’s attempts to build a domestic airline industry, considered the pinnacle of high-tech manufacturing. Foreign companies and top-notch engineers have simply been unwilling to share technology with China (Boeing has even avoided building factories in China, for fear of commercial espionage). The result: Planes that fly from Beijing to Shanghai today are still built by Boeing and Airbus. …

Of course, China would like to change this. Beijing is doing its best to both allay the fears of international partners and to nurture its own homegrown innovators. A program known as the “State High-Tech Development Plan,” launched by Beijing in March 1986 and nicknamed the “863 Program,” aims to develop top scientists in China and to incubate cutting-edge technology projects in energy and other sectors. So far, its results have been modest over two decades: birthing a family of computer processors known as Loongson, and some technology used in the Shenzhou spacecraft. While the 863 Program’s track record should certainly dispel Western assumptions that no good research can come from China, it also disproves the notion that money alone can clone a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Sergey Brin.

There are also plenty of areas where the two countries can actively cooperate, like the development of plug-in cars or carbon capture for coal plants. (See Evan Osnos's New Yorker article for an example of a California electric-car designer hooking up with a Chinese battery firm.)

To be clear, none of this will really take off until the United States actually lays down a price on carbon and enacts other policies to give a big jolt to the clean-energy sector. Friedman's certainly right that we need to take those steps. But once that happens, the push for green tech probably won't turn into some all-out brawl, or—since Friedman insists on using the Sputnik analogy—anything resembling the space race in the 1960s.

(Flickr photo credit: zappyday7)