On a hot day this summer, Chinese President Hu Jintao and a group of state leaders appeared at a public function wearing short-sleeved shirts, rather than their normal business suits (not pictured here). According to the state press, the casual attire wasn’t just a new fashion statement: China’s top brass were leading by example, encouraging Chinese workers to dress in light clothing in order to reduce the use of air conditioners in office buildings.
Fashions do change. Outright denial of global warming is out of vogue. Instead, the climate change do-nothing set is sporting this season’s new line: “Why should we bother trying to fight climate change when China won’t do anything to reduce its emissions?” (Conservative communications consultant Frank Luntz even insists that the “‘international fairness’ issue is an emotional home run.” Emotional home run? One might ask what a win looks like in his game?)
How to counter this flawed logic? Hu Jintao’s climate-fighting wardrobe choices aside, here are three ways:
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
1. Since when have we looked to China for leadership—moral, technological, fashionable, or otherwise?
Or, to avoid any taint of xenophobia, you can frame this a little more positively: We need to lead, and do what’s right—and help other countries to follow us, not wait for them to lead. Al Gore has pioneered this sentiment:
We in the United States of America have a particularly important responsibility, after all, because the world still regards us as the natural leader of the community of nations. Simply put, in order for the world to respond urgently to the climate crisis, the United States must lead the way. No other nation can.
Add to that Rep. Jay Inslee’s constant refrain: “it should be America’s destiny to lead the world in fighting climate change.”
See also: John McCain, John Edwards, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Gordon Campbell, and Rudy Giuliani.
It’s not just talk. US sluggishness is a roadblock to meaningful progress worldwide. As Rob Watson, the C.E.O. of EcoTech International, which works on environmental issues in China put it: “The Chinese are not going to take anything we say seriously if we don’t set an example ourselves.”
2. Right now, we are leading China—but in the wrong direction!
The growing middle class in China and other budding economies around the world are looking to the US and Europe to figure out how to live with their newfound prosperity. Thomas L. Friedman calls it a global explosion of “new Americans”—millions of carbon copies of ourselves. Adopting western lifestyles and consumer behavior, these “new Americans” are imitating our clothes, cars, houses, toys, and tastes—and our energy habits.
What if we offered them an alternative, more efficient model to imitate? Sounds like a win-win to me.
3. Sure Chinese emissions are growing—but they’re already seizing opportunities that we aren’t.
Yes, China’s rapid growth is quickly making it the world’s largest carbon-dioxide emitter; but the country’s leadership has also unveiled a set of aggressive emissions reduction policies to counter the impacts of its rapid growth.
New Chinese passenger car efficiency standards, for example, are expected to result in one of the most fuel-efficient passenger vehicle fleets in the world—with estimated averages of 34 miles per gallon in 2005 and 37 mpg in 2008. In contrast, this year, the U.S. Senate agreed to mandate an increase in fuel efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon—by 2020.
In fact, China’s reforms—in transportation and major industries—are on track to cut 168 million tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2010, according to the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP). It’s not much compared with the 6 billion tons of carbon-dioxide China emits each year. But it comes close to the Bush administration’s goal of reducing US emissions, voluntarily, by 183 million tons a year by 2010. CCAP has a good myth-busting overview of the measures China is taking here (pdf).
China is also finding prosperous new niche markets, selling clean-energy technologies to the rest of the world. From the Christian Science Monitor:
In a bid to cut energy costs, boost energy security, and reduce air pollution, [China] could be essentially creating the largest greenhouse-gas-reduction plan on the planet. Indeed, if the nation’s leaders follow through, it may be the US playing catch-up with China—not the other way around.
And the Chinese are no dummies when it comes to smart business opportunities. From Pew:
…China is seizing the economic opportunities of the clean energy sector. In one example, by 2005, China had the world’s third-largest solar cell production capacity, with 30 major Chinese solar cell manufacturers comprising about 30 percent of global market share and employing some 250,000 people.
In short—when the do-nothing set tries to use China as an excuse for inaction, don’t let them get away with it. The game of follow the leader requires a leader. We’re not providing that leadership now—which means that we’ve got the responsibility to step it up a notch or two.
(P.S. More China myth-busting from NRDC here ; Grist here ; and Pew Climate here.)
Matt the Engineer
I completely agree. Here are a few energy-related observations from a vacation I took to China last year:1. Talking with a college student in Xian, I told him we were going to rent bicycles on the city wall. He laughed, and said that Americans were crazy to bicycle on vacation while Chinese dream of driving around in cars. Driving in a car is considered very luxurious there.2. All of the scooters in Shanghai and Beijing were electric. There were thousands of the things. Why don’t we have electric scooters?3. Vacuum tube solar water heaters are on every roof.4. In smaller towns, coal bricks are carried around on donkey carts and sold house to house.5. The air was generally dirty. One night’s stay in Datong left my throat raw. Soot gathered on any horizontal surface.
Having treated myself to an electric bike about 7 years ago that I had to give up because it was so heavy, I’ve been avidly watching the new versions as they’ve appeared, some with lighter weight batteries. So I have a Google Alert, and it brought up this CNET news article about e-bikes in China that pointed out some downsides. I’m not familiar with all the ecological expenses incurred with increased use of lead batteries, but disposal is surely one—especially if they have such a short lifespan, and what about the mining? (I was trained to think like that by Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, which is one of my all-time favorite books.)
I moved to China from Seattle four months ago and have had the opportunity to visit several places across China like Beijing (where I live), Zhengzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hong Kong. Here are some of my observations:1) In my opinion, most chinese people would like clean air, clean water, and a healthy ecosystem. But my impression is that they feel jobs/income (primarily manufacturing related activities) are more important. People speak of these issues as a two way street: economic growth on one end and the environment on the other. I should note this is inline with the government’s position over the past decade—economic development above all else. But, this position just changed with the last party congress. I don’t expect any immediate changes with regards to the environment, but Hu’s ‘Scientific Development’ opens the door to reducing economic development if something else needs focus. 2) It is true that people want cars, but since there are so many bicyclists, the cities build special ‘lanes’ for the cyclists. Sometimes these lanes are separated by a thick median with grass, small trees, and concrete, sometimes it’s as simple as a short wire fence. Even in areas without bicycle paths, I see bicyclists on major highways right next to the cars—Chinese drivers are used to seeing, avoiding, and passing cyclists. I would hesitate to call riding in beijing “bicycle-friendly” (except in the hutongs), but then again I wouldn’t call driving “friendly” here either.3) There are no dryers. People hang their clothes to dry. A small thing really, but now that I’m used to hanging my clothes to dry, I don’t really know why I used the dryer. 4) People unplug appliances because (in my opinion)…5) In much of Beijing, you prepay for electricity. Yes, I go to an ATM machine and purchase ‘units’ that I then scan into my meter (via a smartcard). My electric meter then shows me when it needs more power and I have to go feed it again. The work involved and the fact that I walk right by my meter everyday with a big red readout of how many units i have left makes me more conscious of the electricity I use. The chinese pay per unit for more than just electricity—At Tsinghua University, students use their student debit card to pay for water in the shower.6) Many toilets have two flushing modes. Weird smells were already a problem with public toilets before this upgrade, so I think it works just fine.7) Beijing is adding five, yes 5 subway lines over the next two years. A ride is 2 yuan or about 30 cents US. Oh seattle, if only there were simple, dependable rapid transit between your neighborhoods.8) Property rights—the government can take whatever it wants whenever it wants in the name of development. This ability is, well, criminal, except that it’s china, so it’s just, well, china. That means that when they say they want to have 45 sq m of green space per citizen for the olympics, they make it. 9) In the cities it’s in fashion to be a conspicuous consumer so the volume of trash is on the rise. Strangely, I have never found a trashbag larger than a small wastebasket, but I think that’s just me.