Academic journal article Policy Review

China's View of Climate Change

Academic journal article Policy Review

China's View of Climate Change

Article excerpt

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA has warned that the threat from climate change is serious, urgent, and growing. He has exhorted governments and citizens across the world to respond "boldly, swiftly, and together" or "risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe. Countless government officials, political leaders, climate scientists, and global warming activists agree with him. Standing in the way of these hopes and dreams, however, is China. It poses one of the biggest roadblocks to collective global action--even as it offers some of the most exciting solutions.

On the one hand, China significantly contributes to global warming by emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country, but it adamantly refuses to commit to any binding, international carbon emissions reduction targets. On the other hand, China is taking the threat of climate change ever more seriously at home: It is increasingly focused on cleaning up its heavy polluting industries, restoring its natural resources, promoting energy efficiency and conservation, and investing in renewable energy.

In the international debate on climate change, China appears to be both naked in self-interest and extravagantly cloaked in authoritarian chic. Many climate change worriers bitterly condemn China's international position as inflexible, irresponsible, and obstructionist. Yet many also eagerly praise China's aggressive push into green technology as bold and visionary. For instance, after the international climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom criticized China and a handful of other countries for having stood in the way of a global move "toward a greener future." In contrast, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman frequently and breathlessly extols the "enlightened" leadership of Chinese autocrats who wish to remake "Red China" into "Green China," "own" the clean technology market, and "impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21 st century."

A closer look at China's views and actions on climate change reveal that they are not as appalling as critics portray or as awe-inspiring as admirers believe. On this as on many other issues, China cares about protecting its economic development and promoting its economic competitiveness. It does not intend to cut the country's impressive GDP growth figures to clean the earth or please international crowds. It does, however, believe that a warming climate could potentially inflict devastating damage on China and is taking concrete actions to address that threat. In addition, Beijing is dead serious about making money from the world's new obsession with climate change and promoting Chinese leadership in--and ownership of--the global marketplace of green technology.

Ultimately, China's self-interest may be quite naked, but it is not unreasonable. Its authoritarianism, on the other hand, is only chic to those prone to equate ruthlessness with efficiency, government planning with enlightenment.

China's views

CHINA'S VIEWS ON climate change are fundamentally tied to the country's pressing need for continued economic development. The People's Republic may have regularly wowed the world with breathtaking, double-digit annual economic growth in the past three decades, but much of the country remains desperately poor. Beijing likes to remind the world that some 150 million Chinese citizens still live below the poverty line and China's per capita GDP only recently exceeded $3,000. In 2009, a year in which China's GDP officially grew by 8.7 percent, China's National Bureau of Statistics reported that the annual per capita net income for rural households amounted to less than 5,153 yuan (approximately $750), while the annual per capita disposable income of urban households was approximately 17,175 yuan (approximately $2,500). …

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