China's Climate Cred

It's better than you might imagine, but let's not go overboard

3 min read
China's Climate Cred

It's safe to say that China is the number one U.S. obsession, and that trade competitiveness is the top-ranking sub-obsession. Under competitiveness, China's climate policies may be the leading sub-sub-obsession. I personally have had my share of experience with the topic's touchiness. I can scarcely broach it with my best friend, a professional economist, because he thinks we should impose punitive tariffs on China unless it agrees to cut its carbon emissions and I don't. (I see trade sanctions as too violent a gesture; and if we impose them on China because the People's Republic benefits from any costly measures we impose on ourselves, what's to prevent Europe from imposing the same kind of penalties on us because they have adopted much costlier carbon cuts than we have?) Once, at a neighbor's cocktail party, when I suggested to a Harvard professor that it was fair to require carbon cuts of the advanced industrial countries before fast-developing countries like China had to adopt similar measures, his reaction was to turn his back on me and walk off.

So a lot of people would accuse me of being soft on China. But I see, surveying some recent comment, that I'm a long ways from being as soft as it gets.

This week, James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies at Columbia University stands accused in the arch-conservative Washington Times of comparing U.S. climate policy invidiously with China's. "I have the impression that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles," Hansen is reported to have said.. "At the same time, China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient."

Sorry, but if you're trying to persuade Americans to adopt stronger carbon reduction policies, it's plainly not constructive to suggest or seem to suggest that we'd do better to adopt China's political system. Yet Hansen's not alone in giving China much more credit than it deserves.

Robert Rebetto, an economist with the United Nations Foundation, said in a recent letter to the New York Times that "China has already taken more forceful actions to limit emissions than we have"--stricter fuel efficiency standards, a national renewable energy portfolio standard, big investments in wind and solar, etc. But Rebetto seems to be losing sight of one simple thing: The United States has promised to cut its emissions, while China won't even say when its emissions growth will peak.

The list goes on. In the December issue of Scientific American, David G. Victor asserts that China is making the world's "biggest effort to check growth in its pollution." (That may be true in the literal sense that China is trying harder to cut its pollution than any other country is trying to cut China's pollution, but it's not true in any other sense.) Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California, San Diego, refers to China's investments in nuclear power and supercritical coal combusion, and to its concerted drive to improve energy efficiency. ("Across the Chinese economy, efficiency has become a watchword. It even factors in to how the Chinese Communist Party promotes its officials.") Victor seems to be losing sight of the fact that each year China continues to add coal generation roughly equivalent to the whole size of Britain's electricity generation sector, and that its automotive sector is growing even more crazily. If China were really serious about cutting pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, it would be looking a lot harder for a way to bypass the internal combustion engine altogether.

(I'd give you the url for Victor's commentary, but it's not easy to locate on SciAm's website, perhaps not by accident.)

Why the sudden fashion for giving China much more credit for its climate policies than is its due? You've got me.

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