How America Can Turn China Green

By Guterl, Fred | Newsweek International, February 23, 2009 | Go to article overview

How America Can Turn China Green

Guterl, Fred, Newsweek International

Byline: Fred Guterl; With Craig Simons in Beijing

The U.S. ignored Beijing's request that it pay 1 percent of GDP to help China go green. It shouldn't.

Gao Guangsheng has an odd sense of timing. In late October, as the global financial system was collapsing around him, he put the United States, Europe and Japan on notice that they would be getting a bill for a hundred years of pumping the climate full of carbon dioxide. The idea wasn't entirely new--the big industrial powers had been vilified before for despoiling the planet on their way to wealth and modernization, while asking China, India and other poor nations to do the right thing. But the demand took on an entirely new characater coming from Gao, Beijing's climate czar. It didn't hurt that he was able to deliver a precise figure: 1 percent of GDP, which comes to more than $350 billion a year.

Western leaders handled Gao's statement as you might have expected in the middle of an economic crisis: they ignored it. Over the next few months, however, that tactic will be difficult to sustain. As climate talks begin to build toward a climax in Copenhagen in December, when a follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol is due to be drawn up, Gao's challenge stands as a gaping rift. It's the same rift that kept China, India and other relatively poor nations out of Kyoto and gave President George W. Bush an excuse to withdraw, putting climate-change policy on hold for the past eight years. The issue looms large over Hillary Clinton's first trip this week to Beijing as newly minted secretary of state. The longer the issue remains unresolved, the greater the chance that Copenhagen will end in a similar stalemate--and this time there'll be no George Bush to blame.

Given the gravity of the issue, the notion of paying China to solve its environment problems may not be as much of a nonstarter as it sounds. China is a key pressure point of the world's climate problem. Last year it surpassed the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. Even so, China's breakneck growth means that most of its mistakes, from a climate standpoint, are yet to be made. China, for instance, has whole cities on the drawing board, waiting to house hundreds of millions of people who are expected to move from the countryside in the next decade or so. But buildings--constructing, heating and lighting them--typically account for about 40 percent of a nation's energy demand. Retrofitting existing buildings in the United States to be more energy-efficient is a lot harder than building green ones in China from scratch. A similar potential holds for automobiles and power plants. China builds 100 or so coal plants every year, and each time it fails to use the most efficient technology it commits the atmosphere to absorbing that much more carbon for the next 30 or so years. From the standpoint of the planet--a ton of carbon dioxide does the same damage regardless of where it comes from--it makes sense for the United States to help fix China.

A cash payment, of course, is out of the question. (Sorry, Gao.) Hillary Clinton won't be handing over a check for climate reparations. The American public is angry enough at the billions of dollars Washington is throwing at the banks and might not take kindly to spending another $140 billion (1 percent of U.S. GDP) every year to bail out someone else's environment. The American public might acquiesce to climate aid to China if it were sold as a kind of trade stimulus or partnership, however.

When it comes to environmental troubles, the United States and China have more in common than meets the eye. Both nations are climate sinners. Both have vast indigenous reserves of coal, the dirtiest form of electricity generation. And both are under considerable pressure to go green. …

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