The Economy Stupid

BEIJING - In 2008 I started learning Chinese and in 2010 I moved to China to better understand the similarities between China and the United States on Climate Change. Perhaps I should follow the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change closely, but I don’t. This year COP 17 recently convened in Durban, South Africa. The most famous meetings are the 1997 COP 3 in Kyoto and the 2009 COP 15 in Copenhagen. COP 15 was notable for its presence of heads of state including American President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Often interview respondents in China reply that they know about climate change because COP 15 put China in the spotlight, at the time having recently passed the US as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

In 2009, there was a sense that an agreement could be reached, with late-night meetings among world leaders. In March 2010 Premier Wen spent several minutes explaining why he personally did not attend those meetings at a press conference for the People’s Congress in Beijing. Since Copenhagen things have dramatically reversed and heads of state from the greatest polluters are now absent. The highlight of Durban is that the negotiations are to be concluded by 2015 with a new treaty in place by 2020, six years after Copenhagen if things go according to plan.  As I read excerpts of a BBC article or two and some comments posted, perhaps it finally dawned on me, to quote James Carville, "it's the economy stupid.”

We could ask ourselves, “well, if we can make progress against the ozone hole problem through the UN process (Montreal Protocol), why can’t we make progress on climate change?” But perhaps its better to look at the Doha Round and the inability of nations to come to firm agreements on the issue of trade. Unlike the ozone hole, climate change is not asking for us to remove chemicals from a selection of household and industrial products. Climate change is asking us to completely change how we live our lives. Perhaps it’s a bit dramatic, but if I look at a little notebook that the Goethe Institute was giving out in Beijing, one can see that everything from eating meat to bathing to using a light to using a computer to read this blog likely causes the emissions of carbon dioxide (The Mantle has a green web host). This is due simply to the burning of fossil fuels.

In China citizens are encouraged to live a “low-carbon life” (低碳生活) and leaders make pronouncements about sustainable development. Yet in Cancun and Durban, China argues that developing countries should be allowed to develop unhampered by treaties. For all the talk about sustainability and the low-carbon life it seems that China does not see an alternative way to develop without continuing to burn fossil fuels and emitting greater amounts of greenhouse gases. Yet, at the same time, I’ve heard from a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and an energy foundation that China is doing more than any other country in the world to mitigate climate change.

A BBC article quoted Xie Zhenhua, the head of China’s delegation in Durban who, apparently trembling with rage directed at developed countries, said: “We are doing things you are not doing…we want to see your real actions.”

Every month or so as I attend sessions of the Beijing Energy and Environment Roundtable (BEER) I am reminded of the scale of China’s efforts, as wind generation and solar cell production multiplies. In 2008 China received news coverage for the closing of factories and the limiting of car travel in Beijing to reduce air pollution. Practices like this have continued to take place, such as the closing of over two thousand polluting steel plants in 2010 (see article).

Importantly though, the steel plants were closed in large part because they were more costly and less efficient than newer plants. What China has been able to do is synergize creating a market economy with energy efficiency/climate change in a way that countries like the United States struggle to (see debate). The current result is that the United States government says it’s unfair and companies propose trade tariffs.

Yet if we look at the United States there is a significant amount of people that do not want the government to provide health coverage, let alone shape economic activity for a complex issue like climate change. In Europe, one can see a greater desire to shape the market, and a greater willingness to do this to address climate change. Yet, still in Europe, one of the greatest climate change successes has been closing down Communist-era factories in Central and Eastern Europe. As economies were re-organized, emissions were in some cases dramatically reduced.

As the December headlines fade, it again becomes the 50 or 51 week question: what to do about climate change when we’re not convening a COP? The answer continues to remain, "the economy stupid."

Follow Chris on Twitter: @enviroeberhardt

Climate Change