"There’s nothing we can do,” the taxi driver says in heavily accented Mandarin, as he shrugs and lights a cigarette, “this is Beijing.” His car is caught in a vast expanse of apparently stationary traffic, eight lanes across. We’ve inched forward less than half a mile in 45 minutes.

There are 4.5 million cars in the Chinese capital, and an average of 1,900 more are sold every day. By 2015, there will be 7 million cars here, the AP reported earlier this year, citing an estimate from the Beijing Transportation Research Center. As a result, the average driving speed will drop to about 9 mph. It’s little surprise that on most days, Beijing and scores of other Chinese cities are shrouded in thick smog.

China, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman assures us, is undergoing a “Green Leap Forward,” one that the United States should aim to emulate. Scribes at Newsweek, the Washington Post, and a host of other national publications have similarly trumpeted the arrival of “Green China,” and even President Obama used his Oval Office speech on the BP oil spill to claim that “countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America.”

Yet the facts on the ground paint a starkly different picture. Consider the energy sector, the most polluting part of any economy. China surpassed the United States this summer as the world’s largest energy user. The most recent statistics from the U.S. government indicate that 70 percent of China’s energy needs are met by coal, 20 percent by oil, and only 10 percent by comparatively green sources like natural gas, hydroelectricity, wind, solar, and nuclear. The government is currently constructing 28 nuclear plants, as well as a host of wind farms and solar plants, but the CEO of State Grid Corporation, China’s largest electricity provider, estimates that nuclear, wind, and solar will power only 6 percent of this immense nation by 2020. (It is not clear, moreover, that wind power produces any benefits: The Wall Street Journal reported last year that each time a wind farm is constructed in China, a coal-fired plant is built alongside it to mitigate the inherent instability of wind power.)

While Friedman and others bally-hoo China’s investments in green energy, Beijing is rapidly expanding its investment in fossil fuels. Michael Econ-o-mides, an energy expert at the University of Houston, wrote recently on Forbes’s website of the “utterly massive level of spending that the Chinese have embarked upon in pursuit of expanding their traditional energy portfolio.” Just this year, state-run energy companies have acquired shares in major oil drilling projects in Canada, Angola, and Brazil. One state-run enterprise lent the Vene-zuelan government $20 billion, and the debt will be repaid in oil.

But it is coal that is still king in China. The country mines far more coal than any other nation—almost three times as much annually as the second-place United States. There are no signs of a slowdown: Chinese coal production has tripled in the last 10 years alone, to roughly 3 billion tons per year. China’s reliance on coal-fired power plants means that the country suffers from terribly polluted skies. Canadian scientists using NASA data have concluded that the air in eastern China is the world’s most polluted, with the highest concentration of -particulates. The European Union has also declared that only 1 percent of Chinese city dwellers enjoy safe air quality, and health experts blame air pollution for China’s high rates of cancer and a host of other maladies. With China continuing to ramp up its coal production, the forecast for the country’s skies remains smoggy for decades to come.

China’s rivers and lakes represent another environmental disaster. A series of massive dams along the storied Yellow River are creating a dust bowl in central and western China and sending hundreds of thousands of peasants in search of fertile ground. The Yangtze is faring no better: Even the state-run China Daily says that the famous river is “cancerous” with pollution and warns that drinking water in cities like Shanghai could soon be endangered. (In 2008, a major tributary of the Yangtze turned “red and bubbly,” and 200,000 people in central China lost access to clean drinking water.) Fetid rivers and streams are abundant, even here in the showplace capital. It’s not uncommon to see poorer Chinese people washing their clothes and dishes in rivers thick with pollution and detritus.

In a move that would make Xerxes proud, Beijing is attempting to assert control of its waters. A project 60 years in the making (it was first envisioned by Chairman Mao in 1952), the Chinese government is building three canals to reroute water from rivers in the south of the country to the arid northern plains. It’s a huge project, totaling over $60 billion in construction costs and, critics charge, wreaking environmental disaster. People worry that an undertaking on such a scale will cause soil erosion and landslides and decimate river ecosystems, not to mention displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Since the early 1980s, the Chinese government has made the entirely defensible decision to stress economic growth over environmental protection. This has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of miserable poverty, which is something to celebrate. But the Chinese experience reminds us that if you want to achieve explosive economic growth, it’s not easy being green.

Ethan Epstein is a writer traveling in China.

Next Page