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China's Big Bang Theory: We've Gone Green

My metaphor means no immediate explosion in business for the multiple multinationals that have lined up to offer low-pollution technology to China's factories and buildings. (Vehicles are shaping up as a different story.)

Here's how things work: China is crowded and governments have traditionally served themselves, leaving the people without much support in an intensely competitive and still fundamentally poor country. So you take what you can, for yourself. The next guy is not your comrade in any real sense but your competitor.

So who cares if your farm, mine or factory causes some kind of environmental damage? The environment is public domain. You can't see the damage. You're not responsible for it legally in most ways, and it sure helps feed the family.

Fireworks are a tradition as staunch as popcorn and Super Bowls. Protests would make more noise than fireworks if the state squelched the haggard public's chance to let it rip for Lunar New Year, which is also a lengthy public holiday.

I've heard similar theories applied to the holdup in green industry and buildings. Local entrepreneurs tend to see no direct benefits in raising energy efficiency, which lures capital away from investment in green technology. Banks are some of the most fearful, followed by developers -- save for the top tier including China Vanke (000002:SZ) and Vantone International (VNTI).

People at large are hardly adding pressure. To quote one person I talked to a decade ago in the perennially polluted coal belt city of Taiyuan -- where you come back from every outing with black hands -- "We're just used to it."

Offshore investors will be keen to know that investment in green industry and buildings to date comes largely from foreign firms. The list of partners for the China Greentech Initiative, a business coalition seeking to be seen as energy efficiency leaders, includes General Electric (GE), BP (BP), Bayer (BAYRY), Dow Chemical (DOW) and Dow Corning. They're not the only names a New York investor will recognize.

The cumulative figures are worth a firework or 200: Two years ago China led the world in green investment with $211 billion, much of it from abroad, up about 30% from the previous year, according to a study by the United Nations Environment Program and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management. (The United States surpassed China later.)
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