How greed will save the world

Panning for gold in China's environmental catastrophes.

Published January 9, 2006 8:00PM (EST)

Another day, another devastating toxic spill in China. News services are reporting that significant amounts of cadmium have made their way into a river in Hunan Province, while six tons of diesel fuel were recently dumped into the Yellow River. This is on top of a widely reported disaster a month ago in which benzene was released into the Songhua River.

How should we view this flood of toxic catastrophes? We could start with sheer despair. China's headlong dash for development is poisoning not just the Chinese environment, but the whole world. It seems likely to get worse before it gets better.

A slightly more optimistic view holds that the mere announcements of these incidents are a positive sign. In previous years the authorities would have kept a lid on the news. But now the atrocities are simply too great, and public concern too strong. The Chinese people don't just want economic growth; they also want clean water and air.

But my favorite way to look at these disasters is as an opportunity for greed to clean up our act. Over the weekend, the International Herald Tribune published a fascinating article covering companies and investment funds that view China as a growth market for energy-efficient technologies and other environmentally positive goods and services.

The IHT cites an Asian Development Bank report estimating that "the global market for environmental goods and services will grow to $836 billion in 2015 from $607 billion last year." That's healthy growth, and potentially a good sign for the world's future. The more we can figure out how to make money off of cleaning up our mess, the better off we'll all be.

The IHT led me to the FE Clean Energy Group, an investment group currently setting up a fund in Asia valued at $75 million. FE Clean Energy is interesting because the closer you look at the company, the more you understand that it has been set up specifically to profit from global warming. Its business plan seems largely predicated on funding projects that are not only profitable in the short term, simply as good businesses, but that, down the line, will also generate potentially valuable carbon dioxide emission credits.

The basic idea behind carbon trading is that companies that invest in or build projects that reduce CO2 emissions earn credits that can be sold to companies that produce excessive emissions. As nations set tighter and tighter limits on allowable emissions, the value of those credits will rise, creating ever greater incentives to invest in greener energy technologies.

The creation of a global market for carbon credits is the goal of the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. has refused to sign. It's easy to forget, given U.S. intransigence, that the Protocol went into effect in February of 2005 for those countries that have already signed on. There are already nascent carbon trading markets in existence. The European Union just concluded its first full year with a carbon trading market, and the early reports seem to indicate that it is off to an encouraging start.

According to FE Clean Energy's Web site, "Almost daily, one finds new evidence that the institutions and infrastructure necessary to support a market for carbon credits are progressing in their development ... In FE Clean Energy's view, concern about global warming on the part of governments and [non-governmental organizations] will provide continued support for the development of a carbon trading market ... Moreover if a worldwide agreement to reduce greenhouse gases is adopted the value of carbon credits could increase substantially. FE Clean Energy is positioned to make its investments more carbon-centric as carbon values rise."

So let's keep an eye on the the price of carbon, or, to be specific, the price one must pay to emit carbon dioxide. If that value goes up, it means that greed is well on its way to saving the world.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Energy Environment Globalization How The World Works