How Dirty, Polluted China Takes Climate Change More Seriously Than We Do

People may not be able to breathe in Beijing, but its politicians are doing more than U.S. lawmakers are to slow global warming.

A couple wearing protective masks poses for a self portrait in thick haze on Tiananmen Square in Beijing Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013. Extremely high pollution levels shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks Tuesday, forcing airlines in Beijing and elsewhere to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting government warnings for residents to stay indoors. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
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Coral Davenport
March 7, 2013, 3:10 p.m.

For years, Wash­ing­ton has blamed China for its fail­ure to pass a law to fight cli­mate change. Law­makers of both parties have long made the same ar­gu­ment: The world’s two biggest eco­nom­ies both de­pend on cheap coal-fired power to fuel their plants and factor­ies — coal power that sends bil­lions of tons of car­bon pol­lu­tion in­to the at­mo­sphere, mak­ing the U.S. and China the world’s top two green­house-gas emit­ters. Over the past dec­ade, as China’s eco­nomy surged at rates that av­er­aged 10 per­cent a year, so did its hun­ger for coal — help­ing it pull past Amer­ica as the world’s worst car­bon pol­luter.

If the United States were to act uni­lat­er­ally to cut its coal use and car­bon emis­sions, politi­cians here con­ten­ded, it would knee­cap the do­mest­ic eco­nomy, raise man­u­fac­tur­ing costs, and give coal-guzz­ling China a huge com­pet­it­ive ad­vant­age in the glob­al mar­ket­place — without mak­ing a mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence in green­house-gas pol­lu­tion. And be­cause coal is power­ing the growth spurt lift­ing bil­lions of Chinese from poverty to the middle class, few thought the Asi­an su­per­power would act on its own to cut its coal use.

Now China is blow­ing a hole in that case. This week, the Na­tion­al People’s Con­gress of China is con­ven­ing in Beijing to form­ally mark the trans­fer of power from out­go­ing Premi­er Wen Jiabao to the new ad­min­is­tra­tion of his deputy, Li Keqi­ang. The han­doff comes with a clear shift in policy: a lev­el­ing off of China’s re­cent gal­lop­ing pace of eco­nom­ic growth and an au­thor­it­at­ive com­mit­ment to curb­ing the pol­lu­tion — par­tic­u­larly from coal — that growth has wrought.

In his farewell speech to Con­gress this week, Wen said, “Eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment is in­creas­ingly in con­flict with re­source con­ser­va­tion and en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion.” He said that while the eco­nomy must con­tin­ue to grow, “un­bal­anced, un­co­ordin­ated, and un­sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment re­mains a prom­in­ent prob­lem.”

China is ser­i­ous: In­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure has been grow­ing for Beijing to stop spew­ing plan­et-warm­ing pol­lu­tion. There has been do­mest­ic agit­a­tion, too. China’s coal plants have blanketed its cit­ies with soot and smog, cre­at­ing some of the worst air qual­ity in the world. Thou­sands of pre­ma­ture deaths blamed on pol­lu­tion have promp­ted ri­ots and protests. In Janu­ary, re­cord levels of dirty air in Beijing promp­ted fur­ther de­mands from cit­izens for the gov­ern­ment to cut its coal us­age.

To set the table for the new ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda, China’s Na­tion­al De­vel­op­ment and Re­form Com­mis­sion this week laid out a blue­print that would slow the rate of eco­nom­ic growth to 7.5 per­cent over the next year — a pace that’s still ag­gress­ive com­pared with oth­er eco­nom­ies but rep­res­ents a slow­down from growth over the past dec­ade. The plan also de­tails the gov­ern­ment’s bid to cut en­ergy con­sump­tion per unit of gross do­mest­ic product by 16 per­cent and its car­bon in­tens­ity (the amount of car­bon pro­duced per unit of GDP) by 17 per­cent (us­ing 2010 levels) by 2015. In ad­di­tion, China is now mov­ing stead­ily to­ward a plan to put a price on car­bon pol­lu­tion — something that’s still a goal too far for many U.S. poli­cy­makers.

At the same time, China’s cent­ral gov­ern­ment has im­ple­men­ted sev­en pi­lot cap-and-trade pro­grams in provinces around the coun­try to test which mar­ket-based sys­tem for cut­ting and pri­cing car­bon pol­lu­tion could best be scaled up to the na­tion­al level. And its Con­gress is con­sid­er­ing a plan to either tax car­bon emis­sions or cre­ate a “re­source tax” tied dir­ectly to the use of coal.

All that move­ment un­der­cuts the long-stand­ing U.S. ar­gu­ment that China would not act to cut its coal use. And China ex­perts say there’s plenty of reas­on to be­lieve Beijing will fol­low through. “At the na­tion­al level, the polit­ic­al will is there,” says Tre­vor Haus­er, an en­ergy ana­lyst and a former ad­viser to then-Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton.

Haus­er and oth­er eco­nom­ists say it is pos­sible for China to con­tin­ue to grow and to raise its cit­izens from poverty even while slow­ing its rate of car­bon emis­sions, if it re­struc­tures its eco­nomy the way the United States did. China’s in­com­ing Li ad­min­is­tra­tion has signaled that it wants — even­tu­ally — to shift from a pol­lu­tion-heavy man­u­fac­tur­ing-based eco­nomy to a low-car­bon eco­nomy of know­ledge-work­ers, con­sumers, and fin­an­cial and tech­nic­al ser­vices.

However, even China’s bold suite of car­bon-cut­ting activ­it­ies won’t be enough to re­verse the tra­ject­ory of its pol­lu­tion quickly enough. At best, emis­sions could plat­eau in the next dec­ade, but not enough to stave off the worst cata­stroph­ic ef­fects of cli­mate change. And des­pite the re­versal, China’s ac­tions won’t be enough to per­suade the U.S. Con­gress to en­act a cli­mate-change law — at least not yet. Mean­while, China’s clear-eyed ac­know­ledg­ment that cut­ting car­bon emis­sions means sac­ri­fi­cing eco­nom­ic growth — even as it weighs the cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is of such moves — could provide fuel for op­pon­ents of car­bon-cut­ting ac­tion in the U.S., which is in no po­s­i­tion to throttle down its eco­nom­ic en­gine.

Still, China’s ac­tions could help quiet some ob­jec­tions to Pres­id­ent Obama’s con­tro­ver­sial new cli­mate strategy. In the ab­sence of ac­tion from Con­gress, he is ex­pec­ted to move for­ward ag­gress­ively (not un­like the Chinese), us­ing his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity to roll out new En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions on car­bon pol­lu­tion from coal plants.

After years of play­ing a game of chick­en, the world’s two worst cli­mate pol­luters are fi­nally blink­ing. “These are the two bad boys of cli­mate,” says Paul Bled­soe, an en­ergy-policy con­sult­ant who was a seni­or cli­mate ad­viser to the Clin­ton White House. “But, iron­ic­ally, they’re start­ing to come closer to each oth­er on this is­sue, mov­ing in­de­pend­ently.”


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