The greening of China.

Several years back, the Outlook section of the Washington Post featured an op-ed[1] that gave four reasons why China would not likely prove to be the dominant nation for the 21st century: (1) rapid aging of the population, brought on by years of a one-child-per-family policy; (2) lack of the reliable financial statistics needed to guide effective economic policy formulation; (3) a failure to deal with rapidly growing environmental problems; (4) the lack of any compelling vision that would make the world’s peoples (especially the young) wish they lived there. [By implication, America’s arguably better track record in these four respects might be cause for comfort here in the United States.]

The environmental dimension in particular should matter to us. George Leopold’s most recent post made reference to Chinese environmental problems, and followed on the heels of a cover story in the August 10-16 issue of the Economist, entitled The world’s worst polluter. The Economist piece is worth a read in its entirety (e.g., it provided considerably more background on soil and water pollution than excerpted below); here are some bits and pieces:

China is so vast and its economy is growing so rapidly that its effect on the world is far greater than that of any other single country…

In January 2013 the air of Beijing hit a level of toxicity 40 times above what the World Health Organisation deems safe. A tenth of the country’s farmland is poisoned with chemicals and heavy metals. Half of China’s urban water supplies are unfit even to wash in, let alone drink. In the northern half of the country air pollution lops five-and-a-half years off the average life…

The pace at which it deals with local pollution is a matter for China itself. But the country’s emissions are of wider interest because they also pollute the atmosphere, which is a global resource. The scale and speed of China’s development—it consumes 40-45% of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel, aluminium and zinc—means it is doing so fast. Since 1990 the amount of CO2 pouring from Chinese smokestacks has risen from 2 billion tonnes a year to 9 billion—almost 30% of the global total. China produces nearly twice as much CO2 as America. It is no longer merely catching up with the West. The average Chinese person produces the same amount of CO2 as the average European. Even if you reduce that number by a quarter to take account of the emissions produced by China’s exports, it is still huge…

If China cannot cut its CO2 emissions substantially, then either other countries will have to reduce theirs by more than they are doing now…

But getting China to cut back further is not a lost cause. The place is vulnerable to climate change: in absolute terms, more people live at sea level in China, and so are threatened by rising oceans, than in any other country. The leadership therefore knows it needs to come up with a more effective means of changing behaviour. The obvious way is through a carbon tax, which would be more transparent and less subject to negotiation than targets. The government has promised to introduce one, and should get on with it.

China is more likely to move if it sees movement elsewhere. Although attempts to reach a global deal on emissions have failed, Western countries need to continue to lead by example…

For the rest of the world, there is an upside as well as a downside to China’s vastness: it cannot shirk its responsibilities. National policy in China, unlike that anywhere else except America, makes a global difference. If China continues to pour emissions into the atmosphere, its own people are likely to suffer along with everybody else. If, on the other hand, it wants to do something about warming, it will have to cut its own emissions—and everybody will benefit.

We might well pay special heed to the last two paragraphs, not so much focusing on what they mean to China, but rather their implications for us. The Economist argues that “Western countries need to continue to lead by example…” (emphasis added). Some might say that our past example has not been particularly good. We owe much of our own reduction in the carbon intensity of our economies to the export of the energy-intensive, environmentally-degrading work off our shores.  And to say that China’s vastness implies “it cannot shirk its responsibilities” might appear overly hopeful since that’s just what we might appear to have been doing over a decade ago when as four percent of the world’s population we were consuming a quarter of its energy. We may have been right to reject the Kyoto agreement of the late 1990’s given that India and China were not obligated. But circumstances appear to be different today. Now just might be the time to put a fee on carbon in a revenue-neutral way, and take other measures to stimulate conservation and new energy technologies.

A people aspiring to maintain its role as the indispensible nation for the 21st century has within its grasp an opportunity to do just that. For example, fracking technologies and policies with respect to natural-resource ownership make it likely that the United States will become a net exporter of fossil energy to the world over the near term. However, history has shown that nations enjoying such a position have almost unanimously grown complacent rather than use their new-found wealth to accelerate innovation and economic growth in other ways that will position them for the future when the wells run dry, as they surely will.

Even if it’s a little late to continue to lead by example, it’s never too late to shoulder our responsibilities… especially at this important juncture, with so much in the balance, and with so vast an audience worldwide watching and waiting to see what we’ll do.

[1] Apologies, but my lit-review skills weren’t up to the task of locating the article and/or the by-line on-line; my apologies to both the Washington Post and to the author. And while I’ve hopefully retained the gist, my memory may well be faulty with respect to particulars. Perhaps some reader can recover the source.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The greening of China.

  1. Our “leading by example” to induce China’s leadership to literally clean up our act: a classic case of wishful thinking. China’s leadership will take meaningful action only when
    1) the Chinese people demand it, i.e., when their concerns shift from standard of living to quality of life;
    2) the Chinese leadership is forced to recognize the waste inherent in pollution, i.e., when the Chinese economy slows down.

    We are beginning to see signs that both are occurring. There is no evidence whatsoever that our “example” is worth more than a bucket of warm spit to the Chinese leadership.

    • William H. Hooke says:

      🙂 Many thanks, John. A signature comment. Quick, insightful, crisp. A lot of realism/wisdom there. I would probably be feeling more defensive but my crime was in choosing to highlight a perspective from The Economist versus lay out a thought of my own.

      A question for you… to me, their view stemmed not from a direct connection (Chinese leaders looking over their shoulders, eager to copy any and all policies of westerners) so much as a logical chain, which goes something like this. Chinese leadership sees very real challenges in controlling their own population. They’ve allowed a widening gap to develop between the fortunes and prospects of eastern-city dwellers and those living in the rural-western regions. They see many threats to stability, in fact, worried a bit about possible contagion from the Arab spring of a couple of years ago. Air and water pollution, toxic materials in foodstuffs a particular concern, and drawing a lot of attention from microbloggers. If China suffers from problems common to all nations, there’s less of a chance of political and social disruption. But to the extent that western nations show more resolve in dealing with such problems, Chinese leaders are forced into a corner. And though the focus is on local pollution, there’s spillover into the climate-change issue. Isn’t some argument like that behind the analysts’ thinking? And isn’t there some merit to that line of reasoning?

      • Maintaining control of the population seems to be the one principle that all of the Chinese leaders agree on. Their current approach seems to be predicated on spreading economic well-being in exchange for continuing power. For now, economics trumps environmentalism. In the future, the leadership will make whatever concessions they feel necessary to maintain power.

        There are too many unknowns to make any definitive statement (they’re just in the midst of changing to the next generation of leaders; their economy is slowing down; the PLA may be more important than the Party…). In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”

  2. Jack Hooke says:


    Interesting article about China, the pollution in their country, and their role in reducing global warming.

    I tend to agree with Mr. Plodinek’s comment that the Chinese government is not likely to do much about their contributions to global warming until their people demand it. That day may not come soon. However, I have to believe that the more tangible effects of pollution in China are so great that the Chinese people will not long remain quiet on that issue.

    Is there perhaps an opportunity here? Aren’t there initiatives that that can reduce global warming and some of the life-shortening effects of pollution at the same time? Do we have, or can we develop, technologies that do both and that we can market to China or share with them for political purposes? And, by so doing, can we make the world a better place for our own people to live in? This may be what you were getting at in your response to Mr. Plodinek, but I am not quite sure. If so, I apologize for being redundant!

    As an example, the U.S. has been a leader in developing fracking technology to increase our own supplies of natural gas. As far as I know, China has lagged way behind both in developing such technology of their own and even in systematically exploring how much their own economically viable reserves of natural gas could be expanded by such technology. Their alternative will be to import expensive liquid natural gas from other countries or to continue to rely on more nuclear power or ever greater quantities of highly-polluting coal .

    As another example, we have lots of technologies that cleanse what comes out of smokestacks. Most of these technologies add direct costs but turn out to reduce total costs when the expenses for healthcare, replacing pollution-damaged infrastructure, etc. are factored in.

    • William H. Hooke says:

      Thanks, Jack:

      You’re right to point out that Chinese people are far more likely to be animated by their local pollution issues than the more esoteric global warming problem, and that their leaders will respond to these more vigorously in return.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *