China is putting forward aggressive policies to reduce energy intensity while still maintaining rapid development. But transformative sustainable development in China needs to respect some unique conditions if it is to be successful.

More than 30 years ago, Amory Lovins, the co-founder, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, proposed a "soft energy" path for America's own growth trajectory. This alternative vision was based on recognition of the profoundly wasteful use of energy at the time, the many profitable opportunities to increase efficiency throughout the system, and the potential of a rapid deployment of "soft" renewable energy supply technologies.

Due to inconsistent federal policy, the trajectory the U.S. followed over the ensuing decades was erratic, and in some ways we ended up on the "hard path" of increasing fossil fuel-based supplies.

Today, the possibility of China succeeding on a true soft energy path is tantalizing. And while China has strong political and cultural incentives for energy intensive development, there are many barriers to the rapid transformation in energy efficiency and renewable supply required by this model. Recognizing these underlying biases and working to educate local authorities is one potential way to encourage a radically different trajectory for development in China.

The evolving picture of China's energy use is full of contrasts. From one view China is making rapid headway reducing its energy intensity. The Central government has targets for reducing energy use by 20 percent by the close of 2010, and there are huge subsidies for renewable supply technologies. Yet the sheer scale of the development path ahead of China points to dramatic increases in fossil-fuel consumption-and resulting CO2 emissions-while current efficiency measures take some time to come into effect.

Even under the most efficient scenario for energy development, detailed in a report by a major think-tank under the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, China's total greenhouse gas emissions will double by 2050. With most global warming models indicating that the world must stop the runaway CO2 emissions train much sooner, the challenge of continuing China's development on any sustainable path seems daunting.

In comparison to America of the 1970s, China's situation on energy efficiency is far more urgent -- and yet the scale of its development needs is drastically greater. Because of rapidly increasing energy consumption for a growing middle class and through its role as factory to the world, China cannot afford (both economically and environmentally) to develop much further along the "hard path." Indeed, the world cannot afford it either.

China’s Energy Intensity (Btu per (2000) U.S. Dollars) / Source: Energy Information Administration