Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A Multi-Polar World

As I read this article from Sunday's New York Times on the growing environmental impact of China, I was reminded of how physicists describe the spatial distortion caused by a large mass, and the complicated interactions several large masses create between them. China is a large mass, if there ever was one, and it is joining a world currently dominated by two other large masses, the US and the EU. We haven't even begun to experience the full impact of this change, particularly when it comes to energy and the environment.

Nor is this just a function of the relative population sizes--the "China Big" effect. Rather, the development of China has been so rapid, and sufficiently distorted by state central planning, that the energy and environmental consequences of that growth have only recently become apparent against the backdrop of basic economic drivers such as employment and exports. If present trends continue, pollution from China could overwhelm the environmental efforts of all other countries. Not only is China on a path to exceed US emissions of greenhouse gases, but its emissions of "local pollutants"--the oxides of sulfur and nitrogen that have historically produced smog and acid rain in places like L.A. and the Northeast--may also have global impact. The Times suggests this is already the case for particulate pollution, as a result of burning coal without modern pollution control equipment.

This paints a very bleak picture of the decades ahead, but it's not pre-determined. All of these problems create tremendous opportunities, and that's not just a cliche in this case. The greatest leverage available for reducing future emissions is to ensure that new cars, factories, and other sources of pollution incorporate the best available technology. More of those will be added in China than anywhere else. That means if you're going to spend a dollar to reduce emissions, you can get a lot more reductions for your buck in China, than here.

I'm not suggesting letting domestic polluters off the hook. But I do think that global problems call for different approaches than we've applied to local and national problems in the past. We need to be smart about how and where we invest in reducing emissions, if we want to have the maximum impact, both on climate change and on air quality. We also need to think seriously--without fear-mongering and demagoguery--about the resulting tradeoffs between jobs, economic growth, and global pollution. Saving the environment may require building state of the art factories in China that will cost jobs here. Can our political system cope with this kind of challenge?

By the way, I'll be traveling on business for the next several days, so postings may become more erratic.

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