Friday, March 16, 2007

The China Dilemma

Between working on my taxes, I've been thinking about one of the issues raised at Wednesday's presentation on MIT's future coal study, involving China's participation in the international effort to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. John Deutch expressed skepticism that China would tackle its emissions any time soon, because of its focus on economic growth. He also linked this to the slower pace of action in the US, relative to other OECD member countries. It occurs to me that before we can determine the best means of getting China to deal with its contribution to global warming, we need to clarify and prioritize our own concerns about this country of 1.3 billion.

Start with the facts about China's emissions and their future trend. In 1980 China emitted only 30% as much CO2 and other GHGs as the US did. By 2000, that fraction had increased to one-half, while US emissions grew by almost a quarter. Despite its new focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy, China is on a path to reach emissions parity with the US sometime between 2009 and 2020. Although their cumulative emissions won't catch up with ours for many years, China will soon be responsible for more current GHG emissions than any other country.

Some see this as a justification for delaying US action on climate change, for reasons of fairness or economic competition. If China and the US were the only countries exposed to the consequences of these emissions, that might be a more understandable response, even though the same logic clearly didn't hold back the EU in their response to global warming. They knew that neither China nor the US were similarly committed. Still, having a neighbor whose dry, unmowed yard increases the fire hazard for the whole neighborhood doesn't let you off the hook for watering and cutting your own grass.

But that doesn't justify the position of some of the keenest partisans of prompt and aggressive action on climate change, who seem overly willing to give China a free pass on its emissions, for many of the same reasons that China and its supporters articulate, including:
  • China's per-capita emissions are still much lower than those of the US or EU.
  • Western countries created the problem, by burning fossil fuels for a century before China began to modernize.
  • A sizable portion of China's emissions are attributable to products exported to developed countries, which have essentially "offshored" their emissions, along with the jobs and factories that go with them.
For good or ill, though, we all live on the same planet, and climate change is global in scale and effect. Whatever the merits of the above arguments, they don't outweigh the common imperative of helping China to avoid replicating our own mistakes on an even larger scale. If we assume that more aggressive US action on climate change is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for inducing China to commit to cap and subsequently reduce its GHG emissions, what are our options?

As Dr. Deutch noted on Wednesday, incentives seem to hold the key. But whether those take the form of transfers of technology or simply cash payments, this is going to be a very tough pill to swallow, in light of China's growing economic and geopolitical power. Here's the fastest-growing large economy in the world, with which the US already has an enormous trade deficit, and we're supposed to pay them not to emit? Even worse, China is starting to challenge us in sectors where we have enjoyed total dominance, at least since the end of the Cold War. January's anti-satellite test, which has created a serious, long-term hazard to manned and unmanned space operations, reminds us that China is a potential military adversary. And in congressional testimony yesterday, NASA's chief suggested that the Chinese space program could put a man on the moon before our planned return there in 2019. Why should we help China with emissions technology, when they may be diverting their own technology efforts into a new space race, or even an arms race in space?

In order to answer these questions, we must first decide whether climate change is such a serious problem that it transcends our concerns about helping an emerging rival that may end up supplanting us as the world's largest economy and greatest power. Although we've made great strides in the last few years in recognizing the dangers of global warming, I haven't seen that kind of explicit prioritization, yet. There are many areas in which we could assist China in finding a lower-emissions path, including cooperation on some of the same technologies we are developing for ourselves in biofuels, renewable energy, and advanced vehicles, along with the carbon sequestration that was the subject of yesterday's posting. Until we decide which is the bigger problem--climate change or a Chinese superpower--these efforts are likely to fall short of what's necessary. Meanwhile, every passing day increases the scale of the problem, as China builds more cars and power plants.

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