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Does China care about climate change?

PH2009102304077.jpgSteve Mufson thinks they do:

For China, the challenge is immense. On average, a Chinese person emits one-fifth as much greenhouse gas as an American; an overwhelming majority of Chinese do not own cars; and half the population in China still lacks access to winter heating. But its economy is growing so quickly and prosperity is spreading so rapidly that China's demand for energy is destined to increase even if it uses less for every dollar of economic output. The State Grid's economic research institute forecasts an 85 percent increase in electricity demand by 2020.

Still, China has taken significant steps in the past five years. It removed subsidies for motor fuel, which now costs more than it does in the United States; its fuel-efficiency standard for new urban vehicles is 36.7 miles per gallon, a level the United States will not reach for seven years. It has set high efficiency standards for new coal plants; the United States has none. It has set new energy-efficiency standards for buildings. It has targeted its 1,000 top emitters of greenhouse gases to boost energy efficiency by 20 percent. And it has shut down many older, inefficient industrial boilers and power plants.

Of course, China could make an enormous good-faith effort, going much further than America has gone, and still see its emissions increase, which would mean we're all still in terrible trouble.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 26, 2009; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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I recently spent some time in Shandong Province on business. I found the Chinese pragmatic, thoughtful, open and progressive. Much more so than most Americans. For instance, most new buildings have solar water heaters only. When the sun shines, they have hot water. I asked about electric back up for when there is not enough sun. They said their electricity is made with coal which is dirty and the smoke blocks the sun. So it is stupid to use electricity to heat water because if they clean up their dirty generators they will have plenty of solar hot water. Besides you won't die to take a cold shower. It's very invogorating and makes for good stories to share. They are a very happy folk who are glad that things are getting a little better every day.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | October 26, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Bert, I'm not sure I could give up hot water entirely, but I think I could compromise to water that's not-freezing cold when the sun doesn't shine. We definitely heat too much water too hot in our hot water heaters here in the states. Still, I'm not sure a cloudy city like Philly or Seattle (the cities where I've lived) would be livable with icy cold showers for most of the year.

Posted by: MosBen | October 26, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Yes, but if we instigated a global cap-and-trade scheme with each person getting a standard carbon quota the Chinese would be in fine shape and the industrial world looking at serious re-adjustments.

The industrial world is entirely responsible and yet making the least political progress.

I have been trying to draw people's attention to the very strange debate that happened with Levitt and Dubner, arguing about small-bore issues while leaving their wider thesis intact.

Why has the discussion become another partisan slug-fest--I know, I know, the other side are so stupid and irrational--but why are we here. I see no attempt to look at these deeper issue, just lots of hunkering down in ghettoes.

If anyone is really concerned about this then they ought to be thinking about this. I have tried to explain what we should be at least thinking about at:

Posted by: CorkExaminer | October 26, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

They probably DO care, but they have to balance that care with economic growth (which is more or less the foundation of their regime's legitimacy).

On a slight side-note, we really need a break-down of emissions by the more well-off fraction of China's population. Right now, their per capita emissions are really low because they've got hundreds of millions of very poor peasants, which skews the rating.

Posted by: guardsmanbass | October 26, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

The question is not do the Chinese care but does Ezra/Bert/Mos/Chris care about this. I certainly think we do, but if we truly do, then we need to follow the Prez's lead and at least aspire to respect everyone's concerns a bit better. A bit of liberal humility on this issue would be a wonderful thing.

That said, if we could all think a bit more like Bert we would be in fine shape (and a lot happier). That is where we want to get to (and if hot showers turn out to be really important I am sure we could ave 'em without trashing the planet).

Posted by: CorkExaminer | October 26, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra said, "Of course, China could make an enormous good-faith effort, going much further than America has gone, and still see its emissions increase, which would mean we're all still in terrible trouble."

But, if the Chinese are making a good-faith effort, it becomes much harder for people here in the US to say, "It doesn't matter if we cut our emissions because countries like China aren't."

Wait, the people who say that often don't care about reality, so they probably still will say it.

Posted by: CaptainNoble | October 26, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

China's very low ratio of energy consumption per capita has more to do with the very large denominator than any particular virtue as an energy consumer. If you use energy consumption per unit of GDP as a metric, you come up with a very different picture.

Posted by: tl_houston | October 26, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

If the coming century is to be one where China truly starts to punch its demographic weight -- as the Chinese would like -- then there's no point to the chauvinistic argument that since the West industrialized without constraint, the Chinese are entitled to do so on the same terms. While history suggests that later industrializers learn from the mistakes from earlier ones, what gets perceived as mistakes changes over time.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | October 26, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

China has certainly done more of its fair share with respect to climate change policy. Western Europe and United States have engaged in over 100 years of pollution.

Posted by: RandomWalk1 | October 26, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

Chinese leaders have been and are making significant efforts to reduce pollution in cities such as Beijing. One problems seems to be much of China, especially in rural areas, continues to be poor and dependent upon coal for energy. China will probably therefore be inconsistent in developing alternative sources of energy for at least a few decades.

Obviously the Chinese care about climate change, as possible rising waters could detrimentally affect many coastal areas, such as Shanghai. However, Chinese leaders, whether in an authoritarian or democratic political structure in the future, are highly unlikely to approve of policies that would dramatically slow economic growth. Neither are leaders in this country or most western nations.

Wealthy, more overall prosperous nations such as the United States, most European countries, Japan, should be held to a higher standard in taking meaningful actions to reduce climate change than countries where tens of millions of people are still poor, including China, india and Brazil.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | October 26, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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