As the two titans of greenhouse gas emissions announced their first climate pledges last week, the US and China didn't look like were trying hard to impress anyone or one-up each other. Their modest, if politically pragmatic commitments represented the end of a years-long back-room bilateral game of carbon poker, full of bluffing, posturing, the heckling of India and US Congressmen, and now, a couple of mediocre hands. Neither side looks like a winner yet.
But with Copenhagen around the corner and the stakes higher than ever, now's a good time to put down our cards and stop the game. Instead, to paraphrase Hamlet, China and the U.S. need to take up arms against a rising sea of troubles and by opposing, end temperature rise. To be a climate leader or not to be, that is the question. And so far, the country that's said "to be" is China.
While the US Congress has kept a cap on carbon caps, amidst political rancor and the health care issue, China's been busy implementing a range of goals for energy efficiency, renewable energy and cleaner coal mining and burning. There's still much to be done -- including improving China's emissions commitment -- but the country has already begun to not only change its dirty image, but to look more like a leader on climate than the U.S..That's precisely what it wants to do, the WWF"s Yang Fuqiang told me recently.
The Economist is holding an online debate on the topic. "This house believes that China is showing more leadership than America in the fight against climate change," is the resolution, being spearheaded by Peggy Liu of JUCCCE. Max Schultz of the Manhattan Institute is leading the opposition. (Join the debate there, and below, here.)
It's a timely question and not just because the Copenhagen meeting is on the horizon. A new poll shows that only 41% of Americans think the country is staying ahead of China when it comes to innovation. That's more than half the country that sees the U.S. as lagging behind China. Ask a policy maker or a scientist or a CEO what kind of innovation will be key to stay competitive, and the answer is that green equals green. Or is it red, the color of the renminbi?
Lately China's been confidence-wracked too, of course. The same poll found that 80% of Chinese think that the U.S. is staying ahead of their country on innovation.
But as much as future climate leadership will depend on technology, leadership now is largely an issue of policy and law and money. Without the push from Beijing or Washington, neither country would have the kickstart needed to become a green technology leader.
Both countries have taken great steps so far, ones that might have seemed politically and financially impossible just a few years ago. But the seeming impossibility of those steps should inspire us for the next steps. In China, that inspiration has led to a series
In the U.S., that inspiration has largely been dashed on the rocky shore of American legislation.
To be sure, the individual determination of so many American lawmakers, policy nerds, environmental advocates and citizens to become more sustainable and cut carbon is impressive; if I had to put my money on which country's people were working harder to cut carbon, I'd go with the U.S. And if the question asked about sustainability in general, about efforts to improve air and water quality, the U.S. would take the cake.
But the question -- and the fight against climate change -- relates to what governments are doing now. That the U.S. has so much internal potential and demand for action only makes its political hesitation all the more disappointing.
For his part, Schultz, the leader of the opposition, doesn't avoid the issue of Congressional feet-dragging. In fact, he praises it as part of his argument about the US's superior leadership. That might fly in a US Chamber of Commerce meeting, but that argument can't go far, and it certainly wouldn't impress anyone outside the U.S. It certainly doesn't make the U.S. a leader in cutting emissions and bringing us closer to a low carbon economy.
Let's keep in mind that China's no jolly green giant, as pat observers like Tom Friedman would sometimes have us believe. Its rivers and skies are heavily tainted, its environmental laws remain weak, its fixation on economic growth largely dismisses ecology, its emissions are still high, and its new promises are little different from business as usual.
Then again, business in usual in China has already changed dramatically in the past decade, in large part thanks to its entrance on the world stage via the WTO and the Olympic Games. And with its emergence, it arguably had more intense pressure to look and act like a world player than the US. The government didn't just adapt to that pressure; it soon decided China was going to be a leader too. More recently, Beijing realized that leadership needed to involve the environment.
It's been pointed out that Friedman's frequent praise of China and his invocation of the Space Race to describe the US-China march toward a clean energy future is really a metaphorical provocation. As usual, he's not trying to give a fine-grain accurate accounting of what's going on -- he's trying to shake America awake.
Hu's the Climate Leader
But there's no need to embellish China's efforts. We need to consider its current economic climate, its historically low carbon footprint compared to the US, and the millions of its people still hoping to escape poverty. And given that, we ought to consider what it's been doing in the way of targets and technologies, in order to create an economy that can thrive not just in harmony with environmental protection, but because of it too.
Consider the Taiyanggong coal plant. It's a trigeneration coal and natural gas plant that produces fewer emissions and pollutants than similar power plants. It's also much more expensive to run, even with the help of funds from the UN Clean Development Mechanism. It's no secret that China built it partly to impress the world ahead of the Olympics. But it's also a small monument to the country's vision of a low-carbon future -- a far cry from the future it seemed to envision only a few years ago.
And as costs drop, Beijing already knows, plants like this will be saving money as well as energy. If China can cultivate the right policies and expertise to build these plants on their own, they can help not only themselves, but the entire world in its quest to reduce emissions and avoid more serious climate damage.
Such moves aren't just about staying afloat in the global economy or looking like a leader in the eyes of the world. Just as importantly, cutting carbon is about impressing the Chinese people too. Nothing's more important to the Communist Party than stability, and it hasn't gone lost on Beijing: few countries stand to be impacted by climate change as severely as China does.
That alone won't motivate China to make dramatic carbon cuts. Like the U.S., it will need assurances from other countries that they'll be doing their part too, including the kind of sharing and cooperation that Presidents Hu and Obama just announced.
To get the moving pieces moving together will be the new task of the Copenhagen meeting. Right now, in the words of Hamlet, "The native hue of resolution / is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought / and enterprises of great pitch and moment, / With this regard, their currents turn awry, / and lose the name of action."
China's not a climate leader per se -- again, its recent pledge is disappointing in absolute terms. But after years of side-stepping the issue, its recent actions have been more inspiring and effective than those of the US on climate change. With the developing world watching from one side and the US Congress from the other, China is showing its native hue of resolution, and that hue's looking greener than ours.
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