China and the Question of Action

Between travels and prior to speaking before the UN in September, Lo Sze Ping, the Campaign and Communications Director for Greenpeace China, stopped in for a briefing with a handful of folks at the Center for American Progress. His message to us, as it will be to the UN, was that China IS taking steps to combat global warming, debunking the U.S.’s “China excuse.”

I’m not sure how strongly his argument stands [I for one am skeptical — JR], but having opened the can of worms that is China, several questions emerge. How heavily should the U.S.’s decision to act rely on China? And what would constitute action from China? Finally, my background in comparative politics is useful because China’s domestic landscape could factor heavily into the answers.

Lo explained that unlike the U.S., China’s national leadership is undoubtedly stronger than local leadership on global warming and renewable energy. As evidence, look at China’s National Climate Change Action Plan to rely on 15% renewable energy sources by 2020.

Provincial leaders, on the other hand, are especially GDP-minded. (Thomas Friedman, in a recent series from Beijing, discussed China’s obsession with economic growth as a source of stability, tagged “GDP-ism.”) Meanwhile, the national leadership is held responsible for China’s pollution and therefore has more political incentive to deal with global warming. Contrast this to the U.S., where local leadership prevails.

For its national action plan, China will rely heavily on wind and solar power, the root of Greenpeace China’s argument that China has begun to act. A recent report by WWF, the Chinese Renewable Energy Industry Association, and Greenpeace backs Lo’s claim. Yet, news coverage of the report is both complimentary and critical:

The report predicts that solar power prices will match conventional power prices by 2030, when installed capacity could be up to 100 GW with strong government support — or one-sixth of the country’s total generating ability at present. But without support through the years when it cannot compete on price alone, solar will be just one-tenth that potential level, a still impressive 10 GW but far from enough to make a dent in China’s energy-related pollution problems or to contribute to its energy security.

Clearly, scale is a central issue as China grows exponentially (as the above excerpt implies). A second issue raised in CAP’s meeting with Lo is the value of potential capability and targets versus implementation, and if both serve as a sufficient negotiating tool. The conversation evolved into a question of if and how to constructively involve China in international negotiations (for example, if based on Greenpeace’s action argument).

Peter Ogden, CAP senior analyst and author of the Washington Post article “Back in the Black: Profiting on a Green China,” carried the question of how to make China be seen as a negotiating partner to draw all sides into more productive international and/or bi-lateral discussions.

Asking what it takes to see China as a meaningful participant in negotiations brings us back to the question of how heavily the U.S. should depend on Chinese action before staking out its own policy.

Unfortunately, neither are questions that are likely to see any progress this week. China ratified Kyoto and has thus cooperated (to an extent) in international, UN negotiations on climate change. (China’s progress on actual emissions is, so far, non-existent.) Meanwhile the U.S. stages an obstructionist summit on voluntary reductions for the world’s worst climate offenders.

While Thomas Friedman struggles with the color of Chinese policy on the environment, the U.S. remains a solid, steady, dirty black — the color of Dick Cheney, Big Oil, ignorance and oblivion.

One Response to China and the Question of Action

  1. Earl Killian says:

    The U.S. does not need to wait for China. Once the U.S. adopts a policy on greenhouse gas reduction, it can turn around and use its market power to effect changes in China. We need to tax imports from countries that are not part of an international greenhouse gas control system in such a way that their imports do not benefit from not participating. Once that is done, China will have strong incentives to come on board.