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

TAIPEI (TheStreet) -- - When China gets covered in enough sooty pollution to make a volcano jealous, we can't blame the propaganda machinery for its output.

As the country winds up its two weeks of Lunar New Year celebrations on Saturday Feb. 23, Xinhua says the holiday has "gone green." The official news agency means that fewer people dropped cherry bombs or sent exploding balls of fire into the air.

Fireworks tend to pick up bit by bit about half a month before the holiday. Once the two-week festivities formally start, fireworks create a staccato symphony so thick there's no silence -- just the purr of something like axes breaking through your walls -- and smoke so thick that it raises pollution levels in an already filthy country.

I acknowledge writing again about the old issue of air pollution. But the fireworks went on much as usual this year in most of China despite Xinhua's claim of green rather than greyish brown air. And there's more.

The news agency's Feb. 14 report follows other Chinese government statements about environmental progress, even when there isn't any. Such statements aim to fire up citizen participation in cleaning the air. They should not be confused with the reality of today's China.

Granted, some people went green instead of glaring red this year, and friends in several cities said they heard more pauses than usual between blasts. I imagine the growing crowd that leaves China every Lunar New Year for resorts in Southeast Asia or tours of Europe accounted for some of the silence.

But I also got one report that one city's fireworks went on from 1 a.m. straight through 9 a.m. During the Lunar New Year period last year pyrotechnics raised particulate matter levels in Beijing to about 1,600 micrograms per cubic meter -- 80 times pre-holiday levels.

I bring up fireworks not because they come close to the scale of industry, traffic or energy-inefficient buildings in causing China's notorious air pollution. I use them as a metaphor for why pollution as a whole persists in China despite calls for cleanups and great lists of rules to make them happen.

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.)

But people on the ground in Beijing say loans are tough for private companies while green supplies are hard to get in China compared to developed markets. There's also serious talk in China of raising electricity rates. For industry in particular, China's obsession with a strong GDP holds back growth in more costly energy-efficient factories.

"For the mass market I don't see it taking hold quite yet," says Alan Beebe, a director with the China Greentech Initiative, speaking specifically of green construction.

Foreign investors in a greener China should see business jump with a bang once the host country starts to add action to policy. But they may be in for a long, quiet wait.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

Ralph Jennings is on LinkedIn.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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