It is hard to know if Thomas L. Friedman's love affair with China, already reaching approval of autocracy, is so intense that he is blind to reality or that he simply likes to pick and choose facts from China to buttress whatever he thinks we should do in America.
His recent column in the New York Times, "The New Sputnik," is mostly a recitation of what is widely known. China, both because it is increasingly concerned about pollution and because there may be business opportunities is looking to "go green" or, at least, more green than it has been as it has built, and continues to build, many coal fired electric generating plants, and typically without the latest anti-pollution technology.
This is not particularly surprising and has precious little to do with global warming. As populations become more affluent they tend to value less tangible goods such as cleaner air and water. Besides which coal is problematic for China, as its reserves are located distant from its population centers and its rail system is already straining with over half its total rail capacity being used to transport coal.
Friedman's push is that China is doing more work in solar power and wind generation and this is, like Sputnik, a direct challenge to the U.S. that warrants a strategic response - by which he means a governmental response. He then blames business, in the form of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and says that the Chamber, "having sold its soul to the old coal and oil industries, uses its influence to prevent Congress from passing legislation to really spur renewables."
One could read this column and never glean a hint that the primary way China is going green when it comes to electrical power generation is by ramping up nuclear power plant construction:
Japan Steel Works Ltd., a maker of atomic reactor parts for Areva SA and Toshiba Corp., more than doubled its forecast for China's nuclear plant construction because of stimulus spending and environmental pressures.
The country may build about 22 reactors in the five years ending 2010 and 132 units thereafter, compared with a company estimate last year for a total 60 reactors, President Ikuo Sato said in an interview.
China's plan calls for the percentage of China's electric power now coming from nuclear to more than double by 2020 and increase almost seven-fold by 2030:
China is likely to make nuclear power account for five percent of its total installed power-generating capacity by 2020, Tuesday's China Securities Journal quoted Zhang Guobao, head of National Energy Administration, as saying.
The newly revised share target was one percentage point higher than the four percent goal set in the 2007 edition of the nation's nuclear power development plan. â€¦
China now has 11 operational nuclear generating units with a combined installed capacity of 9.08 million kw.
Nuclear plants provide 2.3 percent of China's power and the proportion is planned to rise to 16 percent by 2030.
These new reactors are typically very advanced relying on both foreign technology and a program to raise the domestic content of nuclear reactors. In addition to the benefits on pollution, nuclear reactors site easily near the densely populated coastal cities that are far from both the coal mines and the places where hydroelectric and wind power are commonly found.
Despite Friedman's swooning, it is not actually obvious that the "one-party autocracy" of the Chinese has all the answers. The ability to "just impose" policies is just as likely, indeed believers in democracy and the republican form of government would say more likely, to lead to bad policy making than good. We did, after all, beat both the Nazis and the Communists.
In any case Friedman can't have it both ways. Either the Chinese government is brilliant and we need to respond to its green initiatives a la Sputnik, or we don't. If we do, the obvious implication is we ought to be ramping up our nuclear power program and Friedman's decision to omit any mention of it from his column is simply inexplicable.