Al Gore’s Nobel Lecture emphasized the role of the United States and China as the two nations responsible for the most greenhouse gases emissions, and the ones that should take the lead in the search for climate change solutions. While the U. S. reticence to taking action can be traced back to the personality of its leader, George Bush, China’s perceived lack of goodwill has its roots in an entirely different situation. In his latest San Francisco Chronicle article, ‘Bali needs to know – can China go green?‘, Robert Collier, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Public Policy, explains:
Beijing’s leaders are not being stubborn or in denial. To the contrary, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao seem much more aware of the global warming problem than President Bush or many members of Congress. The crucial sticking point is that Beijing’s top leadership seems largely incapable of complying with any significant cutback commitments.
Amid China’s explosive economic growth of recent years, the Communist government has lost so much political and regulatory power that it has been unable to force provincial and municipal authorities to obey environmental laws. Despite its image abroad as an all-powerful dictatorship, the government desperately needs real regulatory clout.
For example, the central government has made high-profile pledges to reduce energy intensity by 4 percent annually and to punish local officials who fail to comply, but many local authorities have blithely ignored Beijing, continuing to pursue economic growth at all costs. As a result, the country cut its energy intensity by just 1.3 percent last year and by 3 percent in the first nine months of this year, according to official statistics – which are believed to be marred by the data-fudging of local officials.
“The situation remains extremely bleak, with some work not being properly done,” Xie Zhenhua, vice chairman of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, told a Beijing press conference Nov. 29. Asked about the government’s claims that local officials would be judged by their environmental performance, Xie replied, “I know one province that will take action against leaders of selected areas and enterprises if they fail to meet the final energy conservation and emission reduction target.”
What’s urgently needed to help China go green is a crash program of technical aid, modeled on California’s 20-year record of quietly helping Chinese officials learn from the state’s own success in setting standards on air quality and energy efficiency that are tighter than those required under federal law.
With virtually no publicity, scientists and specialists from the California Energy Commission, California Environmental Protection Agency, Air Resources Board, Public Utilities Commission, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the nonprofit Energy Foundation of San Francisco have traveled to China to advise the national, provincial and municipal governments. They have set up pro-conservation electricity rate structures, clean-energy technology tax incentives, tighter vehicle emissions regulations, stronger building insulation standards, home appliance energy standards and other programs. Researchers from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Resources Institute and Harvard University’s Belfer Center are giving similar assistance. The resulting reduction in China’s energy consumption has saved the equivalent of scores of coal-fired power plants and supertankers full of oil.
In contrast, the U.S. government gives little energy assistance to China, totaling less than $2 million per year, little of which will have any impact in the near term. This stinginess is partly caused by the Bush administration’s preference for private sector-led programs, and partly by the sanctions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodshed. Most U.S. energy assistance is focused on clean coal technology, such as so-called carbon capture and storage, which is not expected to become commercially ready until about 2017.
At Bali, Chinese diplomats find it easier to beg for money than to admit that they are no longer kings of their roost. They are demanding that foreign governments create a multibillion-dollar fund to promote the spread of environmentally friendly technology to the developing world, and they also propose that wealthy nations relax patent protections on green technology.
These proposals are much needed for poor nations without enough money to go green, and China has the world’s biggest foreign-exchange reserves, at $1.4 trillion and growing by about $30 billion per month. Rather than use this money to create the sort of green investment funds that the West is now expected to provide, central bank authorities in Beijing have followed an orthodox investment strategy, largely in U.S. government securities that enable the Bush administration’s war programs and deficit spending.
China is already receiving large sums of foreign aid through the Clean Development Mechanism, an arrangement under the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialized countries to gain emissions credits by investing in energy-saving projects in developing countries. China is the largest single recipient of these funds, and about $15 billion in credits have been registered over the past two years. Many foreign experts say these funds are largely superfluous, supporting projects that would have been built anyway without the extra money.
Another kind of help that is not needed is the confusion of global warming with Western principles of free-market democracy.
To many in Washington, the idea of helping a communist government regulate its citizens more effectively is sheer anathema. Some U.S. policymakers see the environment as a potential tool to try to support Chinese democracy activists, similar to the way citizen movements helped to transform the former Soviet bloc.
It’s certainly true that the lack of democracy enables local Communist Party authorities to repress citizen complaints about pollution. But the Chinese government is already suspicious that the West is using global warming as a Trojan horse for pro-democracy plotting. Leaders of China’s beleaguered but heroic environmental groups privately beg their foreign colleagues to never even mention George Soros, who is seen in the United States as an arch-liberal but is viewed by Chinese security officials as the man who almost single-handedly overthrew communism in Eastern Europe and would seek to do the same in China.
Any muddling of global warming and democracy would be counterproductive, poisoning Beijing’s attitudes and undermining the stance of top leaders who want China to go green. The cause of democracy in China is a noble issue, but the overwhelming need to stop global warming requires that it be dealt with on a separate plane.
As in the United States, the issue of global warming brings strange bedfellows together in China. Like Washington’s neoconservatives who drive Priuses to help wean the American economy from Middle Eastern oil, Beijing’s own security establishment increasingly supports energy conservation for reasons that have nothing to do with the environment. In recent years, the hard-liners complain, China’s booming energy consumption has not only turned China into a net petroleum importer but also has made its economy totally dependent on U.S. military control of shipping lanes for oil and coal – thus severely restricting the Chinese military’s strategy on Taiwan.
The uniting factor amid this kaleidoscope of self-interests is the need to develop modern, efficient regulatory enforcement. Given that, China could turn around its emissions-belching economy and adopt a clean, green development path – and in the process, give the world hope in the battle against climate change. Without it, that fight will be lost.
More than money, more than whiz-bang technological breakthroughs, China needs to gain the capacity for environmental governance. Western nations, using the tested California model, can help it do so.