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Caught Green-Handed

By David Vranicar - 03 Jul 2011 22:45:0 GMT
Caught Green-Handed

In 2005, a team of Chinese scientists excavated the ruins of the ancient city of Lajia in central China. From the rubble, they unearthed a small bowl with an inverted lid. Inside, perfectly preserved, sat a fist-sized ball of noodles that, after radiocarbon dating, was determined to be about 4,000 years-old. While the food didn't have a "Made in China" label, there is no way for it to have ended up in the rugged, arid province of Qinghai unless it was indeed made in China.

"These are definitely the earliest noodles ever found," Beijing-based geologist Lu Houyuan told the science journal Nature. The logical conclusion, according to Lu, is that the Chinese invented the noodle.

But even if noodles were born in China, they reached their culinary climax in Italy.

Once enlightened to noodles, Italians took the liberty of rewriting the recipe. Noodles became pasta as Italians replaced millet grass - which Lu says was the core ingredient in the Chinese noodle - with wheat, making the product infinitely more palatable. Italians also experimented with different shapes, creating macaroni, fusili, spirelli and so on. Throw in mozzarella cheese and some of the world's best tomatoes, and Italy took what was first a Chinese food and made it its own.

Asian noodles

(Image: Asian noodles © eAlisa)

Now, it's not entirely clear how noodles got to Italy. The Chinese claim that Marco Polo took them back after a trip to the Far East, while others say that the Arabs took noodles to Italy in the seventh-century during their conquest of Sicily - centuries before Marco Polo was even born. But even if Arabs gave noodles to Italy, they likely got them from China during the centuries of trading along the Silk Road, which connected China to the Arab World. So whether noodles got to Italy via Marco Polo or via the Arabs, they first came from China.

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The first large-scale attempts at harnessing the earth's renewable resources came from Europe and the United States. The first electricity-generating wind turbine was installed in Scotland in the late 1800s. By 1900, Denmark boasted 2,500 windmills; a decade later, the U.S. had dozens of wind-driven electricity generators; by the mid-20th century, the United Kingdom had, for the first time in the history of the world, connected wind turbines to a utility grid.

Wind energy

(Image: Wind energy © Rafa Irusta)

The world's largest solar energy power plant is located in California, while Spain, Germany, Italy and Canada each have enormous solar energy power stations. As far back as the 19th century, Germany and the U.S. were building electric cars. And the world's fastest trains, including high-speed "magnetic levitation" trains, were first built in Germany.

Magnetic levitation train

(Image: Magnetic levitation train © Taiga)

Just as historical records show that the noodle first came from China, it is clear that modern, large-scale clean energy came from the West. But as was proven with the noodle, as ideas move around the globe, inventors lose their monopoly on production. And sometimes, other people do it better.

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China has a history of innovation. Along with the noodle, the Chinese invented paper, printing, toilet paper, gunpowder, the compass, acupuncture, paper currency, the calendar year and much, much more. For all their ingenuity, however, the Chinese didn't create green-industry manufacturing - they're just the ones perfecting it. For while greentech was conceived and born in the West, China has emerged as the world leader in the production of clean technology.

"(According to Edward Barbier, an economics professor at the University of Wyoming and an expert on China's greentech industry, China is not short on ambition.

China) wants to be the leading global exporter in these industries which it believes are both a spur to indigenous innovation capabilities as well as employment," Barbier wrote in an email. "China's aim is to capture the world market, not just meet domestic demand."

The country is well on its way to doing just that. A 2011 report commissioned by the World Wildlife Federation says that China's production of green technologies grew 77 percent in 2010. The report also says that China ranks second only to Denmark in the percent of GDP which comes from green technologies - 3.1 percent for Denmark, 1.4 percent for China. And even if Denmark is first in percentage, China is first, by a lot, in total greentech sales: the industry earned China $64 billion last year compared with Denmark's $9.4 billion.

The Pew Charitable Trust, a U.S.-based research organization, has also declared China the world's green industry leader. In a 2011 report - in the section entitled "China Roars Ahead" - the report says, "Overall, it is clear that the center of gravity for clean energy investment is shifting from the West (Europe and the United States) to the East...." To wit, private investment in China's green industries was less than $3 billion in 2005. But by 2009, China led the world in private investment at $39.1 billion; in 2010, it was up another 72 percent, to $54.4 billion.

China's green manufacturing explosion cuts across numerous industries. The Chinese Wind Energy Association reports that at the end of 2010, China's wind power installations could produce 44.7 GW (gigawatts, or one billion watts), which accounts for nearly one-quarter of the world total. Last month, Chinese wind manufacturing company Sinovel produced China's first 6 MW wind turbine; previously, Germany was the only country with 6 MW turbines. And maybe most impressive, the National Energy Agency of China says the nation's wind power capacity has doubled each of the last five years.

greentech solar and wind

(Image: Solar panels in front of wind energy plants © anweber)

Rune Birk Nielsen, who works for the Danish Wind Industry Association, says that China's emergence as a world leader in wind turbine manufacturing is due, in part, to its eagerness to study predecessors such as Denmark.

"I think we get quite a lot of attention from the Chinese manufacturers to learn from the Danes since the modern turbine was in fact invented here in Denmark," Nielsen said. "And we've had quite a lot of success not only with the turbine, but also integrating wind power into the electricity system. We have had numerous conversations with China."

China's greentech isn't limited to wind power. In 2010, according to Pew, China accounted for nearly 50 percent of the solar panels produced in the world. China has also implemented "Transrapid" high-speed rail lines that were first born in Germany; by the end of 2012 China will have more kilometers of high-speed rail lines than the rest of the world combined. A handful of Chinese auto manufacturers such as Geely and Dongfeng Motor Corporation are setting the pace for mass production of electric cars.

greentech

(Image: Greentech © asrawolf)

China did not invent any of this technology. But then again, Italy didn't invent the noodle.

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By pretty much any metric, China has usurped the West as the world's leader in clean technology. Sure, a higher percentage of Denmark's energy production comes from renewable energy sources - 20 percent, according to Nielsen. But the Communist Party of China has decreed that 30 percent of the nation's energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. And the way things are going, betting against China's greentech sector doesn't seem a safe wager.

How, though, did this happen? China has a well-documented history of environmental degradation. There was, for instance, much hullabaloo at the Beijing Olympics when indoor cyclists saw smog inside the racing venue. What's more, China is one of a select few nations that has refused, repeatedly, to join global pollution initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol. Greentech or no, the World Health Organization found that 17 of the world's 25 most polluted cities are in China.

air pollution china

(Image: Air pollution © Kan Jinlong)

But according to Barbier, China's emergence as the king of renewable energy has much more to do with money than environmental stewardship. "China believes that its long-term economic and energy security interests lie in expanding green energy technologies, especially wind, solar, high-speed rail and energy efficient cars," he wrote. "Thus it is an economic decision, not an environmental one."

Cleantech, a renewable energy investment firm, recently published a report for subscribers called "The rise of home-grown cleantech innovation in China." In the report, which was obtained for this story, Cleantech talks at length about the fortune China is spending on greentech. For instance, worldwide stimulus packages in 2009 earmarked a total of $521 billion for green initiatives. About $200 billion of that - more than 38 percent - was from China. China itself had a total stimulus package of $586 billion, meaning 34 percent of its stimulus funds were devoted to greentech (the world average was 16 percent).

greentech stimulus

(Image: One hundred yuan notes © rodho)

Cleantech also reports that the Chinese government goes beyond stimulus spending. The Ministry of Finance uses preferential tax treatment and favorable finance policies, and the Ministry of Education provides universities with incentives to turn research into "commercially viable products." And in select cities, "buyers of full electric vehicles are liable to receive up to 60,000 yuan ($8,800) and those buying plug-in hybrids will receive up to 50,000 yuan ($7,300)."

Electric car charging

(Image: Electric car charging © andrea lehmkuhl)

This is significant because when the West shelves a greentech idea, it's often times because of money. For instance, the German technology firm ThyssenKrupp designed the first magnetic levitation trains but couldn't build them because of what one German media outlet called "spiraling costs." The United Kingdom, too, has had problems getting support for high-speed rail because of gratuitous expenses. And in 2009, Bloomberg wrote an article which quoted a Toyota executive saying, "Electric vehicles of today are less costly than in 1990s, but if you compare them with the other vehicles out there they are still too expensive."

But where there is a gap in market demand and production costs, China's government has footed the bill. "China's aim is to capture the world market, not just meet domestic demand," Barbier wrote. "Thus its policy approach is the same as it has been pursued for other high-growth manufacturing exports: use subsidies and low labor costs to grow infant industries and phase out these supports as economies of scale and export competitiveness kicks in."

The morality of this practice is debatable - unions in the U.S. have objected to Chinese subsidies as a breach of fair-trade laws - but China is still doing it. So while Europeans and Americans haggle about the price of greentech, China is speeding ahead.

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"We have a long track record," Nielsen says of Denmark's wind power industry. "And that has given us the advantage of being the first mover in this field."

Indeed, being a first mover makes Denmark a beacon of innovation in greentech. But as was the case with the noodle, being the first mover doesn't mean innovation is finished. If it did, then the world wouldn't have linguini or spaghetti, we wouldn't have lasagna or fettuccini. Instead of pastas mixed with sauces and cheese, we'd be eating noodles made from grass.

What happened to the noodle is happening to greentech, just in the other direction: Instead of China inventing something and a Western nation mastering it, the West invented something and China is mastering it.

And just as Italy was better suited than China to produce delicious pasta - its climate was better for tomatoes and wheat, its animals better for cheese - China is better suited than the West to produce greentech. Its government has the resources and power to subsidize the industry; its currency makes its products relatively cheap; its enormous population requires jobs, and greentech is a sector that can fill that need. Italy was the perfect place to revolutionize the noodle, and China is the perfect place to revolutionize the greentech industry.

It may rub people the wrong way that China's emphasis on greentech is motivated by economic interests, which in turn are motivated by the Communist Party's quest to maintain power. But it's hard to argue that the world could have too much environmentally friendly technology. That would be like saying the world has too much pasta.

Top Image Credit: © asrawolf