Well it is complicated. While it is undeniably true that virtually all of the existing greenhouse gasses can legitimately be labeled "Made in USA or Europe," China's recent contributions threaten to push the problem from extremely serious to catastrophic. What is especially tragic about this situation is that so much of China's infrastructure is brand new. She had a golden opportunity to do things differently and better. She could have built those sleek new cities powered by the very latest in green technologies. She could have become a global leader in sustainable development. But Nooooo! China became the world's leader in building new coal-fired electrical generating plants.
In some ways, it is pretty easy to understand why China chose a coal-fired building binge. This technology is mature, reliable, and cost effective. Green technologies are only starting to become that way. When China chose coal, she knew what she was buying. Unfortunately, she was also buying some of the most polluted cities in history.
China is also the world's largest producer of solar panels so it's not like she was totally asleep. If she were to figure out how to create a truly solar society, she would determine the course of human development for at least a century. In the meantime, it behooves those of us who live in USA to clean up our own act. No matter what China does, climate change is still largely a problem of our own making.
China, the Climate and the Fate of the PlanetRolling Stone / Reuters / Landov
If the world's biggest polluter doesn't radically reduce the amount of coal it burns, nothing anyone does to stabilize the climate will matter. Inside the slow, frustrating — and maybe even hopeful — struggle to find a new way forward
By Jeff Goodell | September 15, 2014
As the sun rises in mid-july over andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., Secretary of State John Kerry climbs quickly – he's positively bouncing – up the carpeted stairs of his blue-and-white governmentissue 757. Kerry is heading to Beijing to talk with Chinese leaders about, among other things, one of President Obama's top priorities in the waning days of his second term: the urgent need to reduce carbon pollution and limit the damage from climate change. But the rest of the world isn't cutting Kerry any slack right now – there's trouble with the elections in Afghanistan, rising conflict in the Middle East and upcoming negotiations with Iran on nuclear weapons. As he ducks into the plane, Kerry is already talking intensely on his cellphone, deeply wired into the global chaos. An aide shoulders his bags as well as a large black case that contains his acoustic guitar, which he takes with him everywhere and often plays late at night when he's alone in his hotel room.
For nearly a decade, the U.S. and China, the two most powerful nations on the planet, have met every year to talk about how to run the world together. When the talks began in 2006, they focused on issues like currency-exchange rates, trade barriers and China's never-ending disputes with Taiwan. In 2009, shortly after Obama's inauguration, the U.S. pushed to add climate change to the mix, hoping that a better understanding between the U.S. and China would lead to a better deal at the Copenhagen climate summit that year. (It didn't help – mistrust between the countries was a large part of the reason why the talks imploded.)
This year's U.S. delegation includes many of the administration's most influential climate hawks – Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, top climate negotiator Todd Stern and John Podesta, counselor to Obama, who has become the administration's de facto point man for climate policy. This is the diplomatic equivalent of a full-court press. In the past couple of years, Obama has made some important moves, including investing billions in clean energy, jacking up vehicle-efficiency standards and proposing rules to limit pollution from U.S. coal plants. But climate change is a global issue. Unless the West can persuade other countries to take climate action seriously, nothing any single nation does is going to matter much when it comes to solving the problem.
Except, that is, for China. The blunt truth is that what China decides to do in the next decade will likely determine whether or not mankind can halt – or at least ameliorate – global warming. The view among a number of prominent climate scientists is that if China's emissions peak around 2025, we may – just barely – have a shot at stabilizing the climate before all hell breaks loose. But the Chinese have resisted international pressure to curb their emissions. For years, they have used the argument that they are poor, the West is rich, and that the high levels of carbon in the atmosphere were caused by America's and Europe's 200-year-long fossil fuel binge. Climate change is your problem, they argued – you deal with it. But that logic doesn't hold anymore. China is set to become the largest economy in the world this year, and in 2006, it passed the U.S. as the planet's largest carbon polluter. China now dumps 10 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. That number is expected to grow to 15 billion tons by 2030, dwarfing the pollution of the rest of the world. If that happens, then the chances that the world will cut carbon pollution quickly enough to avert dangerous climate change is, according to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K., "virtually zero."
John Kerry knows this. He also knows that when the nations of the world gather in Paris next December to try to hammer out a global climate agreement, it may be the last best chance to address this problem before the Years of Living Dangerously begin. Like other climate negotiations held under the banner of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris meeting is likely to be warped by 25-year-old grudges and a profound sense of distrust. "But right now, Paris is the only game we have," one member of the State Department's climate team told me. "If it fails, there is no Plan B."
In Beijing, one of Kerry's goals will be to find out all he can about China's strategy for Paris – what kind of commitment the Chinese might make, how sincere they are, what tactics they will use. But for Kerry, this is anything but a straightforward conversation, because it's twisted up in the shadow play of U.S.-China relations, which are marked by suspicion, paranoia and saber rattling on both sides as the U.S. adjusts to China's rising power in the world. "What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance," historian Niall Ferguson has written. The issue is not whether China will challenge America's dominance, but when and how.
Shortly before takeoff, Kerry wanders down the aisle to chat. He talks idly about his July 4th celebration and the recent storm damages to his house on Nantucket. But when asked about his expectations for the Beijing summit, he looks grave: "Frankly, we're not sure where this is all going." He remembers what happened in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, when the U.S. was mocked for signing an agreement that the Senate would never ratify, and in Copenhagen in 2009, when Obama arrived at a conference that was supposed to save the world but ended up being gridlocked by squabbles over money and emissions targets. Kerry is determined not to let that happen again.
After 25 years of failed climate negotiations, it's easy to be cynical about the upcoming talks in Paris. But there are at least three factors that make a meaningful agreement next year possible.
The first is that climate change is no longer a hypothetical problem – it's happening in real time all around us. Droughts, floods, more destructive storms, weird weather of all sorts – just look out your window. In the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's top scientists called the fact that the Earth is warming "unequivocal" and stated that humans are the cause of it. Without dramatic action, the planet could warm up as much as 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 F) by the end of the century, which would be catastrophic. As Kerry said of a report last September, "The response must be all hands on deck. It's not about one country making a demand of another. It's the science itself demanding action from all of us."
The second factor is that until now, the biggest obstacle to an international agreement to reduce carbon pollution has been the United States. But that's starting to change. Thanks to Obama's recent crackdown on pollution, as well as the boom in cheap natural gas, which has displaced dirty coal, carbon emissions in the U.S. are on the decline. "What the president has done is very important," says Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. "It allows the U.S. to look at other countries and say, 'Hey, what are you doing?'"
The final reason for hope, paradoxically, is China's relentless demand for energy. China is in the midst of a profound economic and social transformation, trying to reinvent itself from an economy based on selling cheap goods overseas to an economy based on selling quality consumer goods at home, while keeping growth rates high and cutting dependence on fossil fuels. Energy demand is expected to double by 2030, and at that pace, there is not enough oil, coal and gas in the world to keep their economy humming. So China's ongoing energy security depends on the nation developing alternative energy sources in a big way. "We need more of everything," says Peggy Liu, a sustainability leader who works across China. "Wind, solar, a modernized grid. We need to leapfrog over the past and into a clean-energy future."
China's leaders are also waking up to the fact that recent decades of hypergrowth, most of it fired by coal, have exacted a steep price. Air pollution in China's big cities is among the worst in the world; one recent report found that poor air quality contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in 2010. As Hank Paulson, former Secretary of the Treasury and longtime China observer, has put it, "What is another point of GDP worth, if dirty air is killing people?" Earlier this year, a riot broke out in Zhongtai, a town in eastern China, when protests against a new waste incinerator turned violent, leaving police vehicles torched and at least 39 people injured; in southern China, protests erupted over the construction of a coal-fired power plant. Similar clashes are increasingly frequent in China as pollution-related illnesses rise.
And it's not just the air that's a problem in China. More than 20 percent of the country's farmland is polluted. Sixty percent of its groundwater supply is unfit for human consumption. Rivers are industrial sewers. Last year, 16,000 swollen and rotting dead pigs were found dumped in the Huangpu River near Shanghai.
What looks to be the impacts of climate change are starting to register too. Droughts have become longer and more frequent, forcing China to import ever-increasing amounts of staples like wheat and soy. By one count, 28,000 rivers in China have vanished. China's southern provinces have the opposite problem: devastating floods as a result of intense rainfall. In addition, much of the coastline, including cities like Shanghai, are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise.
Chinese leaders know this trajectory is unsustainable – economically and politically. Earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang "declared war" on pollution. Party leaders in China now routinely talk about the importance of "rebalancing the economy" and creating an "ecological civilization." China Daily, the Communist Party house organ, regularly runs stories about air pollution and toxic waste. While I was in Beijing, I asked U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus why the Chinese were now willing to talk so openly about environmental issues. "The fragility of their government," he said bluntly. "They will have a social revolt on their hands if they don't come up with a way of dealing with this."
So a big push for clean energy makes a lot of sense. In fact, you could easily argue that China has already done far more than the U.S. to transform its energy supply: Including hydropower, renewables now make up 20 percent of the energy mix (compared to 13 percent in the U.S.), a share targeted to double by 2030. China is the largest producer of wind and solar power on the planet. In 2013, nearly 60 percent of new-power generation was renewable. They also have 28 new nuclear plants under construction, more than any other country. Policywise, Chinese leaders have also been innovative. In the U.S., neither a carbon tax nor a cap-and-trade system to put a price on carbon pollution is under serious consideration; in contrast, China's carbon-trading program, which includes more than 2,000 pollution sources, is the second-largest trading system in the world (after the EU's). "If China is successful in using market forces to cap carbon and transform its economy, that may be the best shot we have to limit climate change," says Dan Dudek, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
The problem for China, in a word, is coal: About 70 percent of the country's electrical power comes from burning dirty rocks. The Chinese consumed nearly 4 billion tons in 2012, almost as much as the rest of the world combined. Like the oil industry in the U.S., the coal industry has enormous sway in China, making it all the more difficult to kick the habit. But as the rising power of the 21st century, China is under enormous political pressure to behave responsibly, lest it be seen as a pariah like Russia. "The choices that Chinese leaders make in the next decade will be absolutely pivotal to solving the climate crisis," says former Vice President Al Gore. And for China's economic and social stability, the consequences couldn't be higher. "Politically, it's very difficult to be fingered as the one most responsible for a looming catastrophe," Gore continues. Or, as Harvard's Stavins says, "If it's your century, you don't obstruct – you lead."
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