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China to ask for environmental funding at Rio summit

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David Brancaccio: How do you improve the well-being of people around the world without wrecking the planet in the process? To draw up a blueprint, some 50,000 activists, policymakers and business executives are gathering in Rio De Janeiro for next week’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To get a better sense of the challenge, look at China: It’s an advanced industrialized country and a poor developing country all at the same time.

Marketplace’s China Bureau Chief, Rob Schmitz, joins us from Shanghai to talk about this. Hello, Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Good morning, David.

Brancaccio: We have this big summit here, drafting a blueprint for what’s seen as a sustainable global economy, and renewable energy has to be a big part of that. China was the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy, but of course, also a huge polluter. Help us make sense of this paradox.

Schmitz: Yeah, despite or because of the fact that China is the world’s biggest polluter, the country scrambled to do something about this. Obviously you know, China is developing very rapidly and the road that they’ve taken has been quick, but it’s also been very dirty. You know, China still builds on average one coal-fired power plant every week. And of course you know, more and more Chinese are buying cars — GM is selling more cars here in China than in the U.S. as we know. So, all of these things are contributing to increasingly toxic air here, but all that new money means the Chinese government can also spend a lot on renewable energy too.

Brancaccio: So give them high marks for the renewable energy investments, but given their dirty growth, are they actually going to start to shrink their carbon footprint in the years to come?

Schmitz: Well, I talked to U.C. Berkeley environmental law professor Alex Wang about this. He told me China’s carbon emissions are growing so fast that it would take a lot more investment in renewable energy in order to offset emissions. And he cautions anyone who is quick to blame China for its contribution to the world’s carbon emissions.

Alex Wang: I think sometimes the debate misses how much of the responsibility is also in the U.S. and the developed countries that are after all shipping a lot of industries to China and purchasing the goods that China is producing.

Brancaccio: All right, there’s lots of blame to go all around, Rob, but the summit here is also about figuring out what richer countries can do to help countries in the developing world, like China pursue sustainable development. What does China looking to get out of the summit in that regard?

Schmitz: Money. You’re thinking don’t they have a lot of money already, but if you look at it per capita for their population, not really. They are still a developing country and they and the rest of the developing world will use this summit as they’ve used previous climate summits to ask the developed world to help them fund more renewable energy and clean tech projects. But, obviously it’s not a great time to be asking the U.S. and EU for money right now.

Brancaccio: All right, Marketplace’s China bureau chief, Rob Schmitz, thank you very much.

Schmitz: My pleasure.

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