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CNBC Guest Blog: Winning The Sustainability Smackdown With China And Europe

Monday, 11 Apr 2011 | 8:43 AM ET

America, it could be worse.

Peter Dazeley | Getty Images

We could be Europe. I mean, we’re still mostly in the race with China, even though in the past five years, it has improved energy efficiency by nearly 20 percent and have a new five-year plan for another 20 percent. I say big deal — the Empire State Building recently completed an energy efficiency upgrade and cut its consumption by nearly 40% after only nine months of remodeling. OK, so China is doing it with an entire country, but we did it with a really big building that was once featured in a Fay Wray movie.

And in 2010, China passed the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 manufacturer of wind and solar generators and Chinese consumers bought more cars than Americans (oh yeah, and theirs were far more fuel efficient than ours), but hey, No. 2 isn’t so bad — it’s worked for Avis for decades, right?

In sharp contrast, let’s look at how China compares to Europe these days. The E.U. recently shredded old euro coins and sent the scrap nickel and copper to China. But some entrepreneur re-assembled the coins and smuggled them back into Europe to convert them into actual cash, at a much bigger profit than using the metals to make belt buckles and wires. No doubt the recycler used the money to buy other scrap metal to make into Vespas and espresso machines to sell to the Italians and the French. Now, America, don’t you feel smart in comparison?

In fact, there’s more evidence that we’re winning the sustainability smackdown with China and Europe.

President Obama toured a wind-turbine factory in Pennsylvania recently topromote his goal to reduce our oil imports by a third by 2025 and to get 80 percent of America’s electricity from clean sources by 2035.

The easiest way to do this would be to cut our energy use first, by implementing energy efficiency measures that pay for themselves in a few years. That Empire State Building project, for example, has only a three-year payback for energy savings and created hundreds of new jobs in the process. In other words, we could actually achieve the President’s laudable goal and make our economy dramatically more efficient if we, uh, imported our energy policy from Beijing instead of Capitol Hill.

Or maybe we should rely on a European to help us figure this out after all. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently unveiled his next career, this time as the comic book action hero “The Governator”. In Stan Lee’s new creation, Arnold blends experience from bodybuilding, movie special effects, and the policies he implemented as California governor, which helped the state get half it’s energy from clean sources by the end of last year and become 40 percent more energy efficient than the rest of the country.

I guess that’s really the point — this is a match we can all win if we put more ingenuity into using resources that are close to home, rather than into figuring out new ways to snatch another barrel of oil from war zones in the Middle East or kilowatts of electricity from sources that will one day make our food and water glow in the dark.

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Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is president of Seventh Generation Advisors and an operating partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors. He is author of "Cracking The Carbon Code: The Key to Sustainable Profits in the New Economy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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