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The Fallacy of the China Defense

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For anyone who doesn't want to reduce carbon emissions, China seems like a great scapegoat. The defenders of the status quo argue that U.S. companies will be at a disadvantage if we tax carbon or invest in clean energy because "China's not doing anything."

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently offered up a perfect example of this idea: "There are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much greater than we are -- China, India, all these countries that are still growing. They're not going to stop doing what they're doing."
And New York Times op-ed writer Joe Nocera used the China Defense last week in his latest pro-fossil-fuels piece: "the Chinese are far more concerned with economic growth than climate change."

But there are three little problems with this logic:

1) It's not true.

China recently demolished this fallacy when leaders announced they would implement a carbon tax. And when the new Premier spoke on Sunday, he belied Nocera's assertion with a speech that, in the Times words, "laid out a vision of a more equitable society in which environmental protection trumps unbridled growth." These policy shifts are a very big deal for all 7 billion of us sharing the climate. And it's just the latest in a series of Chinese commitments, which include the following:

  • July 2010: 5 trillion yuan, or $800 billion, alternative energy plan over 10 years (this is like the part of the U.S. stimulus plan that funded clean tech, but times 10).
  • August 2012: $372 billion to cut pollution and energy use.

Is China still growing and emitting more carbon? Of course. Is it planning to build another 363 coal plants? Yes. So the world is not black and white. But even with lots of coal and oil investment, there's no way you can say China is doing nothing on clean tech.

2) Science doesn't care.

The math and physics of climate change are getting clearer by the day. As those tree-huggers at McKinsey and PwC UK have calculated, we need to decarbonize at a rapid rate -- about 5 percent less carbon per dollar of GDP every year until 2050. This has to happen no matter who goes "first," and is basically the argument put forth by Grist writer David Roberts recently. We have to try, no matter what anyone else is doing. And, by the way, the impacts of doing nothing will keep growing -- Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the Midwest are just the beginning. The costs of inaction are rising, which brings me to...

3) We should want to go clean anyway.

One of Sen. Rubio's other comments, the most common specious argument against acting on climate change, was that restricting carbon would "devastate" the economy. This is, to borrow a phrase, malarkey.

Even putting aside the literally trillions available through energy efficiency, there's a vast upside from creating new industries. According to the bank HSBC, the clean economy will be a multi-trillion dollar market soon. After all, we're reinventing the world's largest industries: energy, transportation, and buildings. Most other major economies get this and are investing heavily in the clean economy. But no country has gone as fast as China, which has grown its share of solar manufacturing to 50 percent in a very short time (with nearly as impressive a performance in wind).

I could keep going with counterarguments -- like shouldn't we lead because we're, well, leaders? But even if science doesn't care and the whole "China isn't doing it" argument is a lie, I'm partial to number 3: We make money doing it and it's good for us. That's enough for me.

The majority of this post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.

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