Lessons from the streets of Beijing

Today, I took a stroll out to the street of Beijing. Both work and jetlag had me tucked inside since my arrival in the early hours of yesterday. This is my first time in China. And I am excited. I have heard and read much about this new world power.

And here I am attending a forum organised by the Chinese Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Only last month, Nigeria launched its own Alliance to tackle our entrenched energy poverty. Who would believe that in one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, nearly 80% of the population use wood fuel on primitive three-stone fires? So I came to China hoping we can find companies willing to invest in expanding access to modern cooking fuels and technologies for Nigeria’s poor.

Here on the streets of Beijing, I kept thinking how this country has been transformed. I still have vivid pictures of street scenes from TV footages of China in the 1980s. Everywhere you could see people with poverty written boldly on their faces – almost all wearing Chairman Mao’s uniform. There were very few cars. Unhappy men and women in bicycles crowded the streets. I often wondered if the Communist Party prohibited car ownership then. Mind you, this was at a time when the traffic chaos in Lagos was so bad the authorities introduce odd and even number days for car owners.

Just looking at these streets, you get dazed by the sheer size of ten-lane motorways and just the number of cars. China has done well. According to the World Bank, the country accounts for much of the halving in global poverty since 1980. In China alone, poverty declined from 80% in 1980 to 18% in 2005. According to our own National Bureau of Statistics, poverty among Nigerians has spread from 27% of the population in 1980 to 69% in 2010. From 17 million in 1980, over 112 million Nigerians in 2010 lived in poverty.

Today, China is the second largest economy in the world. And depending on who you ask, the country will overtake the USA as the world’s richest country in less than 20 years. There must be a lesson for Nigeria.

China is not only destined to be the world’s richest country, it has also become the world’s biggest polluter. Over the past few years, China overtook the United States as the highest emitter of the harmful gases that cause global warming. The role of China, India, Brazil and several of the emerging economies in reducing these harmful gases have often stalled international negotiations to address global warming.

But everywhere I look in this beautiful city, the streets are impeccably clean with recycle garbage bins all over the place. The underground train network takes much of the human movement. Even though the number of cars on these motorways is incredible, you will also find unending lines of long clean buses. China has pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its energy system by 45% by 2020. By 2015 it plans to be the largest producer of electric vehicles. It has the world’s fastest growing wind and solar energy markets.

The breakneck speed of Chinese growth could harm both its own and the world’s environment. But there is more to it. It is increasingly likely China and the emerging economies will provide more of the answers to tomorrow’s environmental challenges. New technologies, a very liquid fiscal position, good leadership and youthful demographics – all are elements that can shape a cleaner and more prosperous Chinese future.

So I walked back to my hotel feeling a bit low – thinking about my country. And how the world is leaving us behind.