A media report earlier this week said China had overtaken the US as the world's biggest energy consumer. The report was based on an interview with Fatih Birol, chief economist of International Energy Agency (IEA). Although a day later Chinese officials refuted the claim, the Western media were quick to shed crocodile tears over an "energy-hungry dragon".
As an expatriate whose experiences in China began in 1981 with oil exploration and continues as a researcher on the economy, the environment and energy, it is easy to be annoyed with the Western media's sensationalism.
The IEA is an anachronism of a previous world. For a start, solar, hydro and wind power are counted as energy consumption, and measured, like all polluting fossil fuels, in tons of oil equivalent (toe). Reporting all energy consumption in oil equivalent is a reflection of gas-guzzling thinking. Other methods - measuring energy in coal equivalents or joules, or weighting use of fuels by polluting effects - will give different results.
The Western press in its race to grab headlines deliberately forgot to say that the 2009 statistics it quoted were only preliminary estimates. And talking of statistics, another set shows that last year an average American consumed 6.95 toe while an average Chinese used only 1.69 toe.
Furthermore, even the Birol interview report says: "The US also remains the biggest oil consumer by a wide margin, going through roughly 19 million barrels a day on average. China, at about 9.2 million barrels a day, runs a distant second."
The West does not grasp the change in vision of the Chinese leadership. There indeed were factories and blast furnaces in China that used to emit disproportionately high volumes of deadly gases into the atmosphere. But the development miracle of the last three decades shocked China itself. The result: In 2007, China wrote into its constitution the pursuit of a new concept in scientific development. In essence, China realized that it could not follow the Western development model of shifting polluting industries to poorer places.
Ma Zhong, professor and environmental scholar at the Renmin University of China and influential adviser to the government, insists that any green field development in China's western and other remote areas must have the best and newest technologies, instead of second-hand equipment trucked from the already more developed areas.
Ironically, the UN Environmental Programme has acknowledged China's world leadership in quests, research and investment in new and clean technologies and their rapid applications to real sites. They have even said that in the next few years China's energy efficiency in fossil fuels and renewable energy would be even more radical than the past 30 years of economic development.
In short, China has leapfrogged Western development and technology and invested in research and development in a way that Western polities could only dream of. The headlines of what was accounted for in 2009 only denigrate China's efforts.
Chinese may wonder why they are lectured to when they think that the US state of California, outranked in GDP by only a dozen countries, has got where it is after 150 years of cowboy exploitation of natural resources and a century of accumulating pollutant emissions. But looking ahead, smart people in policymaking and the government in China have learnt from the West's mistakes and are skipping them. Minister for Science and Technology Wan Gang spent two decades in Germany and rose to be a hands-on division chief of Audi. His passion for auto efficiency now makes American auto energy standards look outdated.