China’s Climate Change Opportunity [Global Times commentary]

Another commentary of mine published in the Global Times: China’s Climate Change Opportunity

On the occasion of the “China and Global Climate Change” conference I’m participating in, at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, today and tomorrow – and it even made it into their “Top Stories” links…

Full text below the fold:

China has become strong enough to surpass Germany as the third-largest national economy. Even suffering from the global recession, China’s economy is still growing. One has to have the greatest respect for the achievements of the last 30 years. Yet, the challenges ahead are going to be tougher still – measures against climate change seem to threaten the recovery and further progress, but climate change is threatening all prior gains. So, the talks on the road to a successor treaty to the Kyoto protocol are hard.

Chinese politicians, very rightly, point out that the West tends to measure with a double standard.

Industrialized countries’ affluence was built on cheap oil. Their development caused by far the largest share of the emissions that are now recognized as problematic. This is conveniently overlooked in arguing that all countries now need to reduce future emissions.

Industrialized countries tend to celebrate their emissions reductions and criticize China’s rising emissions. A share of these reductions was not really achieved, however, but only “outsourced” to China when moving manufacturing here. Now, conveniently, these emissions are China’s problem.

China’s rise to the third-largest economy – and the largest emitter of CO2 – is taken to imply that the country has an obligation to reduce its emissions. It is less popular to look at GDP and emissions per capita, which puts the issue into a very different perspective. China, if compared by population size, still has low productivity, low material affluence, and low emissions. Industrialized countries, meanwhile, want to see and portray themselves as exemplary for their highly developed way of life. The resources used and emissions generated are so large, however, that such a lifestyle must be changed, and must not be the example for others to follow. In this regard, all countries are developing countries; change may even be harder for industrialized countries because it appears to mean giving up some of their affluence.

At present, all attention is on the new treaty. It is understandable that China, where economic development has brought millions out of poverty, is very concerned about its economic effects. Even the US and Europe, although in a very different position, are not changing as dramatically as would befit their status. China, although looking for its own ways, is so far following a Western model of development only too well, although the problems that this creates – even without counting the effects climate change could very well cause – are clear. Thus, all the mutual criticism, no matter how justified, is of little use when the whole world needs to change toward sustainability. Thus, the focus on emissions reductions is short-sighted. In fact, what we need to work toward are economies and ways of life that function better, satisfy human needs and protect our environment.

The challenge of a change toward sustainability, in the end, may pose a peculiar opportunity for China: looking over the unfairness of some of the arguments, China could show that it has not only been gaining power, but aims for greatness as it develops toward sustainability.

China has a chance to improve its environmental situation as it gets better at serving its citizens, and to develop its economy toward alternative energy and products designed to satisfy human needs while having as little negative effect on the environment as possible.

As it does this, it can put other countries to shame (which would certainly get them working on environmental improvements, too).

The expenses necessary to develop alternative energies that are focused more on quality and sustainability rather than headlong growth are great, but given China’s commitment to stimulus spending, it is not impossible.

It would be a good investment in the future.

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