Friday, May 04, 2012

China and climate change

I was in China recently to learn more about the country's progress in the clean-tech arena.  "Clean-tech" is a vague term, but encompasses almost anything that reduces pollution and/or consumption of non-renewable resources.  China has enormous challenges in this space: energy insecurity from the facts that they (like us) import most of their oil, their air and water pollution are bad enough to be properly labeled "hellish", and extreme water scarcity, just to name a few.  And on top of this, they are now the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which of course contributes to climate change.

The authoritarian government there is terrified of instability (and being thrown out of power, in particular), and their primary strategy to avoid this has been economic growth.  There has been an implicit (albeit coerced) bargain between the government and the people, in which the Chinese government will help the people to build better lives for themselves economically, and in exchange the people stay out of politics.  I think there is lots one could say about this relationship, and perhaps I'll comment on it another day, but for now I'll leave it at "I don't live there (thankfully), so it's not my decision."  The key thing for my point right now is that China views economic development as priorities number 1, 2, and 3.

Well, actually, number 1 and 2.  In its current 5-year plan, China has elevated sustainability to be one of its top 3 priorities.  There's a lot I can say about that (and will in another column), but I think it highlights a key distinction between how they approach problems like climate change and how we approach it.

In China, there is no debate about whether climate change is real or man-made.  But not because it's a suppressed/censored debate.  It's because people in the government are, by and large, well educated technocrats and they would look at you strangely for suggesting that it's some plot by left-wing scientists who are fudging their data in order to get government grants.  They look at the data, and draw what seems to be the obvious conclusion: it's real, and it's likely to be a huge problem.  There simply hasn't been any credible scientific alternative theories or model (of course, one could show up, but it hasn't) to the idea of man-made climate change.  (Certainly none that actually demonstrate that the models cannot be true).

Yet China is, at the moment, the world's biggest contributor to the problem.  One might ask how this can be if they actually believe that climate change is both real and bad.  The main reason is the bargain I referenced above: economic growth wins, and economic growth right now means carbon emissions.  Here in the US, we struggle with the same tension, of course, between emissions and the economic growth that causes them, yet somehow some of us allow the debate about policy to cloud our ideas about the underlying science.  But denial is a lousy strategy.  If the science is wrong and climate change is not real, then hooray - that's great news.  Unfortunately, there's more and more evidence that the science is wrong and climate change is actually going to be worse than modeled.  I hope that too is wrong, but alas hope is also not a strategy.

The Chinese seem to be able to accept the most likely scenario (climate change is real and bad) and address it within the limitations of their other constraints requiring economic growth.  But they are not ignoring it.  They have some aggressive goals about energy intensity per unit of GDP to build on some pretty impressive reductions in energy intensity over the previous 5-year plan, for example.  I personally don't think that's enough - after all, the climate doesn't care about energy intensity, it cares about absolute emissions level - but it is a necessary first step.  What's really required - and I think China understands this, they just aren't in a position technologically yet to make it happen - is a fundamental shift of the economy to low-carbon energy sources.  I believe that the classic tradeoff between "economic growth" and "clean energy" is ultimately a false choice, a failure to see opportunity in a challenge.  And I think China agrees with me.  They are investing heavily in alternative fuels, efficiency, and figuring out a low-carbon economy, and when they get the costs right, the transition will happen for economic reasons rather than environmental ones.  And China will do very nicely economically as a result.

We in the US, on the other hand, still compare people who think that maybe this climate change thing is real to terrorists and mass murders.  I wouldn't trade our political system for theirs, but I would very much like for us to adopt their dispassionate approaches to these sorts of issues.