China surpassed the United States in carbon dioxide emissions in 2009. Some U.S. observers paint China as an energy hog. But China has well over four times the U.S. population, so the average Chinese citizen uses barely one-fourth the energy one American uses.
We should worry if the Chinese continue to increase energy consumption to the U.S. per-capita levels. But that will not happen. The Chinese way-of-life is far more resource-conscious. Coming from their history and culture, they do not squander precious resources. The average Chinese adult saves 40 cents of every dollar they earn, and you can’t save that much if you waste money on energy.
Stay in a China hotel and you will put your room key card into a slot inside the doorway that triggers the room’s electricity. When you leave and take your room key card, the electricity to the room goes off. The same applies to the many school rooms, offices, and other enclosures across the country—they are only heated, cooled or lighted while people are in them.
China’s dramatic economic expansion since 1980 has pulled 500 million of its citizens out of poverty—a middle class approximately twice the size of the U.S. middle class. That means that for most products China produces, it buys nine-out-of-ten of its products itself.
It has been a decade since the new middle class Chinese family has aspired to the "four necessities": television, refrigerator, washing machine, and air conditioning. Yet there is a resistance to extending this affluence to high-energy appliances.
In our university apartment in west-central China, we have a washing machine that skimps on water, but no energy-wasting clothes drier. Clothes dry quite well hung in the air. We wash dishes in a sink; not as convenient as a dishwasher, but that would be another energy hog. You could get your clothes ironed; but for the most part, every day is casual Friday: a little wrinkled but comfortable.
As China moves from a developing to a highly-developed country, there is no way to avoid an increase in per capita use of energy. This is especially visible in their rapid adoption of automobiles. But there is still massive use of bicycles, electric bikes, public busses and trains. And while some cars are powerful, for the most part their trucks are underpowered. Their cars sip, not guzzle gas.
China cannot build power plants fast enough. Last summer, when the county’s power plants were running flat out, demand was 18 percent greater than capacity. The country raised electricity fees for all users except personal households. China also worked on grid efficiency, the only way to avoid rolling brownouts. And China has over two dozen more nuclear power plants on the drawing board or in construction.
China’s electricity dilemma would be even greater had it not mandated a switch from incandescent to fluorescent and LED light bulbs years ago. Overnight, the Chinese made the change and it helped preserve energy for other necessities. U.S. politicians cry out light-bulb "rights." China recognizes a responsibility for electrical equity.
When I return to the U.S., I know that I am going to be frustrated with the energy squandered around me. Americans have become so accustomed to spending a significant portion of our income using convenient but unnecessary appliances, and air conditioning our homes when we are away, etc. How can I teach about efficiency without sounding like a Depression-Era grandmother who goes around turning off lights when we leave a room?
China is working to pull another 500 million rural citizens out of poverty. Lu Xuedu, the deputy director of the Chinese Office of Global Environmental Affairs, has stated: "You cannot tell people who are struggling to earn enough to eat that they need to reduce their emissions."
Meanwhile, our U.S. usage of gasoline and electricity is down, because our middle class is shrinking and poor people cannot afford to use as much energy. Nevertheless, when it comes to being energy hogs on a person-by-person basis, U.S.A. is still Number One!