At first glance, the relative indifference of the government of China to climate change makes sense—environmental protection is a “superior good,” something countries worry about when they get rich and don’t need to worry about people living in horrible shacks eating low-protein diets. On the other hand, everything I’ve ever seen about the economic impact of climate change suggests it will be much more devastating to poor countries than to rich ones. Kate Mackenzie reports for the FT that this way of looking at it seems to be picking up speed in China:
However, a recent article by Xie Zhenhua, China’s lead negotiator at Copenhagen and a vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission which oversees China’s economic policymaking, indicates that fears around climate change as a threat to the country’s development are rising:
“The scale of economic destruction would be equivalent to that of the two world wars and the Great Depression combined” if global temperatures rise by 3 degrees (5.4 Fahrenheit) to 4 degrees Celsius, Xie said. “Human beings and the Earth cannot afford such disasters.”
This argument moves the debate on from “climate change is bad, but development is our first priority” towards “development is our first priority, and climate change may threaten that”. That in turn suggests that the concerns of Mr Xie at least are starting to focus on risks that are longer-term than the next quarterly GDP report.
What’s more, it seems to me that in many ways it should be much easier for China or India to adapt to a low-emissions economy than for the United States. After all we already have a ton of sunk investment in an economy based around the presumption of unpriced carbon. The money we spent on urban freeways is just gone. They were hugely expensive, but we can’t sell them and use the proceeds to build streetcars. China needs to build an enormous amount of new infrastructure anyway and can just build it differently from the start.