Wan Gang, China's Science and Technology Minister, was meeting with Kathleen Wynne last week when he turned to his office window. He pointed outside at the thick grey-yellow smog engulfing Beijing and blotting out the sun. This, he told the Ontario Premier through an interpreter, is where we need your help.
In that moment, described by two Ontario government insiders, Mr. Wan encapsulated the urgency with which China is meeting its latest challenge: stopping the mass environmental degradation that has accompanied its meteoric economic rise.
"All of the decision makers here are acutely aware of the challenges they are facing around pollution," Ms. Wynne told The Globe and Mail during her weeklong trade mission to the Middle Kingdom. "It came up in every single meeting."
Back at home, Ontario's environmental programs have caught flak. The Green Energy Act was criticized for hiking electricity prices to subsidize renewable energy companies. And rural residents turned against the ruling Liberals for dotting the countryside with wind turbines.
But in China, those ecofriendly policies are paying dividends. A dozen Canadian clean-technology companies, many of them nurtured by the government, accompanied Ms. Wynne, hoping to sell everything from environmentally friendly fertilizer to systems for cleaning ship exhaust.
Guelph, Ont.-based Canadian Solar Solutions signed a $70-million deal to build sun-powered energy plants in Jiangsu, Ontario's sister province on China's east coast. The agreement will create jobs in Canada, where part of the solar panels are made.
Chief executive officer Shawn Qu said Ontario's help allowed him to grow his company from a purely manufacturing outfit to an international firm capable of setting up entire solar farms.
"The Green Energy Act was visionary," he said in an interview. "It helps the province to establish the capability in the renewable energy field. Clean energy is going to be a growing industry worldwide in the next 20 or 30 years."
China could use more help from people like Mr. Qu, said Hill Li with the International Green Economy Association. He attended a reception for Canadian businesses at a Beijing hotel, seeking Canadian clean-tech companies to partner with Chinese firms.
"It's just in time – look outside," Mr. Li said, gesturing at the haze. "We're looking for pollution-treatment technologies, and also renewable energy, like solar power, like bio mass … it's a big market."
The country's reliance on coal-burning power plants has made the air nearly unbreathable. One Beijing-based website this week pegged pollution levels at a dangerously high 265. Toronto, by comparison, had a reading of 25; Vancouver's was just 1. In the Chinese capital, the smog is dry and acrid, stinging throats and causing much of the population to wear masks while walking the streets.
Water has fared no better. Industrial waste and agriculture runoff have polluted 70 per cent of the country's lakes and rivers, along with 90 per cent of the groundwater in cities, according to a government estimate.
Such dismal numbers contrast starkly with the country's progress. Gleaming corporate headquarters line Beijing's boulevards; new rail lines are built at lightning speed; the economic growth rate is more than triple that of Canada.
Now, China's government is turning some of that ambition to solving its ecological problems. The country has become the largest producer of renewable energy in the world, for instance, churning out 378 gigawatts of hydro, wind and solar in 2013, according to a report by BP PLC, compared with 172 for the U.S.
"They have the money, they have the momentum, they have the willpower and they move quickly," said Brent Wootton, chair of WaterTAP, an accelerator program created by the Ontario government to help companies that produce water-cleaning technology. During the trade mission, WaterTAP signed a deal with the China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group to help connect Ontario companies with water projects in China.
"China's leadership understands that sustained growth depends on the ecosystem," he said. "They can't have an economy if they don't have clean air, clean water. They understand this."
As if to illustrate the point, Mr. Wan was eager to show the Canadian delegation his own personal contribution to his country's environmental cleanup. As they left, he took them to see his car – an electric model, made by BYD, said one official – plugged in outside the main doors.