China Vs. Earth

Clouds of smoke billow from a metal alloy factory in Gaolan county in northwest China's Gansu province in this Nov. 7, 2006 file photo.
This column was written by Elizabeth Economy.

The message is clear: Shanghai under water, Tibetan glaciers disappearing, crop yields in precipitous decline, epidemics flaring. These are just some of the dire consequences that Chinese scientists predict for their country this century if current climate change is not addressed. Yet China's leaders pay about as much attention to the issue as does George W. Bush.

In fact, a report issued last year by the Climate Action Network-Europe ranks China fifty-fourth out of fifty-six countries for its climate change response, just behind the United States and ahead only of Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Beijing knows the costs of inaction: A recent major official study on climate change predicts up to a 37 percent decline in China's wheat, rice and corn yields in the second half of the century. Precipitation may decline by as much as 30 percent in three of China's seven major river regions: the Huai, Liao and Hai. The Yellow and Yangtze rivers, which support the richest agricultural regions of the country and derive much of their water from Tibetan glaciers, will initially experience floods and then drought as the glaciers melt.

Moreover, a one-meter rise in sea level will submerge an area the size of Portugal along China's eastern seaboard — home to more than half the country's population and 60 percent of its economic output. Already climate change-related extreme weather is taking its toll: In 2006 such disasters cost China more than $25 billion in damage. Finally, a study by Shanghai-based researcher Wen Jiahong suggests that the lethal H5N1 virus will spread as climate change shifts the habitats and migratory patterns of birds.

Yet China's leaders show little inclination to move aggressively to forestall such calamities. As a result of China's reliance on coal to fuel its economy, its emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide have tripled over the past thirty years and are now second only to those of the United States. In late 2006 the International Energy Agency predicted that China would surpass the United States as the largest contributor of CO2 by 2009, a full decade earlier than anticipated. China already uses more coal than the United States, the European Union and Japan combined and is the world's second-largest consumer of oil after the United States. (India, which lags well behind China in its overall consumption of coal, is nonetheless on track to become a major CO2 contributor over the next ten years and is already the fifth-largest contributor of greenhouse gases globally.)

China's development strategy suggests that little will change in the foreseeable future. With plans on the books to urbanize half the Chinese population by 2020, energy consumption will soar. City residents in China use 250 percent more power than their rural counterparts. And China's love affair with the private car is set to rival that of the United States. A conservative estimate by the Asian Development Bank predicts that the number of cars in China could increase by fifteen times present levels over the next thirty years, more than tripling CO2 emissions.

If China's development trajectory continues as planned, its increase in greenhouse gas emissions will likely exceed that of all industrialized countries combined over the next twenty-five years, surpassing by five times the reduction in such emissions that the Kyoto Protocol sought. In short, it's a nightmarishly bad picture.

It would be unfair, however, to characterize China as doing nothing to address climate change. The leadership's worries about both energy security and domestic air pollution — five of the world's ten most polluted cities are in China — are propelling them to set bold targets for reshaping their energy mix and enhancing energy efficiency.

The Chinese government has called for renewable energy to provide 10 percent of the nation's power by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020. Key state-owned enterprises and provincial governors must make 20 percent reductions in their energy intensity (that is, energy consumed per unit of GDP) over the next three years. On that front there is a lot of room for improvement: China's buildings consume 250 percent more energy than buildings in other countries with comparable climates. Beijing has responded with a raft of tough new building codes for energy efficiency. Much like the United States, cities and provinces are now taking matters into their own hands. Shenzhen, for example, has passed a regulation that solar power be used to supply hot water in all new residential buildings under twelve stories.

Already there is some success. With the assistance of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), China built its first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building. Fittingly, the building houses the Ministry of Science and Technology, in Beijing. Ten stories tall, it uses 70 percent less energy than similar buildings and saves 10,000 tons of water annually through rainwater collection. NRDC energy expert Robert Watson, one of the chief architects of the project, claims that if every new nonresidential building in China matched this one, the electricity savings would equal the amount of energy provided by the Three Gorges Dam.

But China is littered with well-intended demonstration projects that go nowhere. If these new regulations are to have an impact, Beijing's tough rhetoric must be matched by real enforcement, a task that has proved elusive in the past. In 2002 the Chinese government pledged to cut sulfur dioxide 10 percent by 2005. (SO2 is not a greenhouse gas but is a noxious byproduct of coal power that causes acid rain and urban smog; getting rid of it is a good idea.) But SO2 emissions have increased 27 percent. From all accounts, few if any of the coal-fired power plants that China is bringing online almost every week embrace state-of-the-art clean technology. Moreover, Beijing has already missed its first-year target for the 2006-10 plan to increase the energy efficiency of industry.

Why can't this supposed command economy impose solutions if its leadership sees a problem? There are several reasons behind China's consistent failure to meet environmental goals.

First, the central government in Beijing actually has little on-the-ground enforcement capability in the provinces. Local environmental protection officials report to and are beholden to local government officials, not to the State Environmental Protection Administration in Beijing. One of the West's great misconceptions is that what Beijing says goes. In fact, local officials are often in cahoots with factory managers and allow industry to pollute well above legal limits — either because the officials have a financial stake in the enterprise or because they are afraid that closing a factory, or making it more expensive to operate, will diminish local employment and lead to social unrest, which is now a very serious problem all across China.