Can China's government out-innovate the American energy sector?
Evan Osnos's essay on China's green energy revolution is one of the best things I've read on the tricky intersection between government and innovation. For instance:
In 2001, the 863 Program launched a “clean coal” project, and Yao Qiang, a professor of thermal engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, was appointed to the committee in charge. He said that its purpose is simple: to spur innovation of ideas so risky and expensive that no private company will attempt them alone. The government is not trying to ordain which technologies will prevail; the notion of attempting to pick “winners and losers” is as unpopular among Chinese technologists as it is in Silicon Valley. Rather, Yao sees his role as trying to insure that promising ideas have a chance to contend at all. “If the government does nothing, the technology is doomed to fail,” he said.
R. & D. expenditures have grown faster in China than in any other big country -- climbing about twenty per cent each year for two decades, to seventy billion dollars last year. Investment in energy research under the 863 Program has grown far faster: between 1991 and 2005, the most recent year on record, the amount increased nearly fifty-fold.
In America, things have gone differently. In April of 1977, President Jimmy Carter warned that the hunt for new energy sources, triggered by the second Arab oil embargo, would be the “moral equivalent of war.” He nearly quadrupled public investment in energy research, and by the mid-nineteen-eighties the U.S. was the unchallenged leader in clean technology, manufacturing more than fifty per cent of the world’s solar cells and installing ninety per cent of the wind power.
Ronald Reagan, however, campaigned on a pledge to abolish the Department of Energy, and, once in office, he reduced investment in research. ... By 2006, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. government was investing $1.4 billion a year -- less than one-sixth the level at its peak, in 1979, with adjustments for inflation.
A China born again green can be hard to imagine, especially for people who live here. After four years in Beijing, I’ve learned how to gauge the pollution before I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache. The city government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most damaging to the respiratory system. Last year, the U.S. Embassy installed an air monitor on the roof of one of its buildings, and every hour it posts the results to a Twitter feed, with a score ranging from 1, which is the cleanest air, to 500, the dirtiest. American cities consider anything above 100 to be unhealthy. The rare times in which an American city has scored above 300 have been in the midst of forest fires. In these cases, the government puts out public-health notices warning that the air is “hazardous” and that “everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” As I type this in Beijing, the Embassy’s air monitor says that today’s score is 500.
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