Clear­ing the Air With China

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Orville Schell

ABEI­JING s bit­terly cold air pours down from Siberia each win­ter, one of the charms of this an­cient cap­i­tal has been the sight of bun­dled-up peo­ple head­ing to Bei­jing’s pic­turesque frozen canals and lakes for ice skat­ing.

This year, how­ever, a 161-year-old tem­per­a­ture record was bro­ken, caus­ing the ice to melt in early Fe­bru­ary. As young women walked Bei­jing’s streets in short skirts in­stead of heavy win­ter clothes, Chi­nese were con­fronted in the stark­est way with the phe­nom­e­non of global warm­ing.

In­deed, al­most ev­ery­where one turns to­day in China, the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of the coun­try’s eco­nomic jug­ger­naut are ev­i­dent. A re­cent trip north­west from Bei­jing through the coal-rich prov­ince of Shanxi re­vealed an al­most end­less land­scape in black and white where the sun rarely shines be­cause of un­con­trolled air pol­lu­tion from coal-fired plants that pro­duce elec­tri­cal power, ce­ment and fer­til­izer. Mean­while, gla­ciol­o­gists now re­port that high up on the Ti­betan Plateau, where glaciers have for mil­len­nia fed most of the ma­jor river sys­tems of Asia — Yangtze, Yel­low, Mekong and Brahma­pu­tra — there is an an­nual melt rate of 7 per­cent, giv­ing th­ese life-sus­tain­ing wa­ter­ways es­ti­mated ac­tu­ar­ial ta­bles of less than two decades. In 2000, the U.N. De­vel­op­ment Pro­gram re­ported that air pol­lu­tion was al­ready caus­ing about 400,000 pre­ma­ture deaths a year. It is hardly sur­pris­ing, as China is home to 16 of the 30 cities with the worst air pol­lu­tion in the world.

In to­day’s China, na­ture is on the run, and at the heart of this en­vi­ron­men­tal cri­sis sits coal, from which the coun­try de­rives 69 per­cent of its pri­mary en­ergy and 52 per­cent of its elec­tric­ity. China uses well over 2.2 bil­lion met­ric tons of the stuff per year — more than the United States, In­dia and Rus­sia com­bined — and pro­duces more con­ven­tional harm­ful emis­sions than the United States.

Some­time next year, China could sur­pass the United States in green­house gas emis­sions, but the av­er­age per­son in China still con­sumes less than one-fifth the en­ergy the av­er­age Amer­i­can does. For China to achieve the same liv­ing stan­dard as the United States, it would have to triple its use of coal, cre­at­ing an enor­mous in­crease in both con­ven­tional pol­lu­tants and green­house gases. And make no mis­take about it, China is an­gling to catch up. In fact, to keep up with this vo­ra­cious de­mand for en­ergy, a new con­ven­tional coal-fired power plant comes on-line in China ev­ery week.

China is not alone. The United States has 100 to 160 con­ven­tional coal-fired plants on the draw­ing boards, all with life spans of about 40 years, and none equipped to cap­ture and se­quester CO . In­deed, as oil and gas have be­come in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive, coun­tries rich in coal have found them­selves re­ly­ing on it ever more. The global con­se­quences of con­tin­u­ing this trend with­out first adopt­ing new “clean coal” tech­nolo­gies will be dire.

And for those unim­pressed by the more dis­tant threat of cli­mate change, there is al­ways the im­me­di­ate prob­lem of con­ven­tional pol­lu­tants. China’s State En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion es­ti­mates that sul­fur-diox­ide (SO ) emis­sions alone are caus­ing China’s GNP an an­nual loss of 12 per­cent, which is about equal to its im­pres­sive growth rate.

Mean­while, the United States has opted out of the Ky­oto Pro­to­cols, while China has signed on only as a “non-an­nex” de­vel­op­ing coun­try, which means it is obliged to meet no bind­ing com­mit­ments to re­duce its emis­sions. Last Novem­ber, China did com­mit it­self to de­riv­ing 15 per­cent of its en­ergy from re­new­able sources by 2020 and to cut­ting the en­ergy con­sumed per unit of GDP by 20 per­cent over five years. But dur­ing the first half of last year, Bei­jing not only failed to meet th­ese tar­gets but had an in­crease of 8 per­cent in en­ergy con­sump­tion per unit of GDP. Ini­tial re­ports from China’s mas­sive hy­dropower fa­cil­ity at the Three Gorges are also un­der­whelm­ing; it ap­pears that the Yangtze River isn’t yet flow­ing fast enough to keep the tur­bines turn­ing.

Con­cerned about keep­ing eco­nomic growth rates high enough to main­tain so­cial or­der, Chi­nese of­fi­cials re­cently lob­bied to tone down the alarm­ing con­clu­sions of the just-re­leased re­port of the U.N. In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change and reaf­firmed their un­will­ing­ness to com­mit China to any lim­its on green­house gas emis­sions.

“China is still a coun­try with a huge de­vel­op­ing pop­u­la­tion,” said Qin Dahe, a rank­ing Chi­nese cli­mate change ne­go­tia­tor, jus­ti­fy­ing his coun­try’s in­ac­tion.

There is a cer­tain de­gree of jus­tice in China’s of­fi­cial view. Af­ter all, for more than a cen­tury, the United States has been a prof­li­gate emit­ter of CO , and it con­tin­ues to refuse to face the fact that it is the world’s largest pro­ducer of green­house gases.

But jus­tice or no, the world is left to con­front a sit­u­a­tion in which the two largest pol­luters have opted out of the so­lu­tion. If the United States will not lead, China will not fol­low, and the re­sults will be tragic: Both coun­tries will suf­fer griev­ously, and so will the rest of the world. What, then, is to be done? The next U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will present a fleet­ing mo­ment of op­por­tu­nity, if only the can­di­dates can be per­suaded to com­mit them­selves to pur­su­ing a ma­jor new co­op­er­a­tive ef­fort to tackle our com­mon prob­lem.

What could be more promis­ing than our lead­ers jointly seiz­ing the reins of lapsed global lead­er­ship and guid­ing our two coun­tries, and the world, out of this im­passe? In­ter­est­ingly, both coun­tries are in need of a re­birth of na­tional lead­er­ship: the United States be­cause of the mi­asma of Iraq and the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign pol­icy, and China be­cause of its failed Marx­ist revo­lu­tion, whose ves­tiges it has still not been able to shed en­tirely.

How should we pro­ceed? By form­ing a coali­tion of re­spected sci­en­tists, busi­ness lead­ers and pol­icy ex­perts, call­ing a high-level emer­gency sum­mit with their coun­ter­parts in China and then en­list­ing the U.S. pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to pledge to make the coal/ cli­mate change is­sue a pri­or­ity. The ul­ti­mate goal should be to un­der­take a $25 bil­lion col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort, with the United States pro­vid­ing cap­i­tal, tech­no­log­i­cal know-how and en­tre­pre­neur­ial and man­age­rial skills and China pro­vid­ing some re­sources of its own, re­search, crit­i­cal lead­er­ship among de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, its low-cost man­u­fac­tur­ing base and its prodi­gious mar­ket en­ergy.

Not only would such a plan be an en­cour­ag­ing first step to­ward solv­ing the world’s most ur­gent long-term prob­lem, it would also bring the United States and China to­gether in a new com­mon en­deavor. In­deed, if any ini­tia­tive could be­gin to ease U.S. fears that China may be­come an eco­nomic or mil­i­tary threat, and at the same time al­lay Chi­nese sus­pi­cions that this coun­try seeks to deny China its right­ful place in the world, global warm­ing is the place to start.

Fi­nally, for those real­ists who un­der­stand that costly projects are rarely a mat­ter of pure al­tru­ism, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that an ini­tia­tive of this kind presents can­di­dates with ex­actly the kind of win-win propo­si­tion that wor­ried vot­ers are now ea­ger to sup­port. More­over, should the United States and China find a way to un­der­take such a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort, it would not only be a his­toric ex­pres­sion of global po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship, but could turn both na­tions into con­struc­tive part­ners at the cen­ter of what may well be­come a dy­namic and lu­cra­tive new sec­tor of the global econ­omy.

Whether we choose to ac­knowl­edge it or not, the United States and China have been ir­re­vo­ca­bly brought to­gether by this com­mon prob­lem. Like it or not, the two coun­tries have be­come each other’s keeper, and un­less our lead­ers can find new ways to co­op­er­ate on this epic chal­lenge, the world will pay a bit­ter price.


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