Clearing the air with China

This year, China broke a 161-year-old temperature record. The environmental consequences of the country’s breakneck growth are evident, says Orville Schell, and coal is at the heart of the crisis.

As bitterly cold air pours down from Siberia each winter, one of the charms of this ancient capital has been the sight of bundled-up people heading to Beijing's picturesque frozen canals and lakes for ice skating.

This year, however, a 161-year-old temperature record was broken, causing the ice to melt in early February. As young women walked Beijing's streets in short skirts instead of heavy winter clothes, Chinese were confronted in the starkest way with the phenomenon of global warming.

Indeed, almost everywhere one turns today in China, the environmental consequences of the country's economic juggernaut are evident. A recent trip northwest from Beijing through the coal-rich province of Shanxi revealed an almost endless landscape in black and white where the sun rarely shines because of uncontrolled air pollution from coal-fired plants that produce electrical power, cement and fertilizer. Meanwhile, glaciologists now report that high up on the Tibetan Plateau, where glaciers have for millennia fed most of the major river systems of Asia — Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Brahmaputra — there is an annual melt rate of 7%, giving these life-sustaining waterways estimated actuarial tables of less than two decades. In 2000, the U.N. Development Program reported that air pollution was already causing about 400,000 premature deaths a year. It is hardly surprising, as China is home to 16 of the 30 cities with the worst air pollution in the world.

In today's China, nature is on the run, and at the heart of this environmental crisis sits coal, from which the country derives 69% of its primary energy and 52% of its electricity. China uses well over 2.2 billion metric tonnes of the stuff per year — more than the United States, India and Russia combined — and produces more conventional harmful emissions than the United States.

Sometime next year, China could surpass the United States in greenhouse-gas emissions, but the average person in China still consumes less than one-fifth the energy the average American does. For China to achieve the same living standard as the United States, it would have to triple its use of coal, creating an enormous increase in both conventional pollutants and greenhouse gases. And make no mistake about it, China is angling to catch up. In fact, to keep up with this voracious demand for energy, a new conventional coal-fired power plant comes on-line in China every week.

China is not alone. The United States has 100 to 160 conventional coal-fired plants on the drawing boards, all with life spans of about 40 years, and none equipped to capture and sequester CO2. Indeed, as oil and gas have become increasingly expensive, countries rich in coal have found themselves relying on it ever more. The global consequences of continuing this trend without first adopting new "clean coal" technologies will be dire.

And for those unimpressed by the more distant threat of climate change, there is always the immediate problem of conventional pollutants. China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) estimates that sulphur-dioxide (SO2) emissions alone are causing China's GNP an annual loss of 12%, which is about equal to its impressive growth rate.

Meanwhile, the United States has opted out of the Kyoto Protocol, while China has signed on only as a developing country, which means it is obliged to meet no binding commitments to reduce its emissions. Last November, China did commit itself to deriving 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and to cutting the energy consumed per unit of GDP by 20% over five years. But during the first half of last year, Beijing not only failed to meet these targets but had an increase of 8% in energy consumption per unit of GDP. Initial reports from China's massive hydropower facility at the Three Gorges are also underwhelming; it appears that the Yangtze River isn't yet flowing fast enough to keep the turbines turning.

Concerned about keeping economic growth rates high enough to maintain social order, Chinese officials recently lobbied to tone down the alarming conclusions of the just-released report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reaffirmed their unwillingness to commit China to any limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

"China is still a country with a huge developing population," said Qin Dahe, a ranking Chinese climate change negotiator, justifying his country's inaction.

There is a certain degree of justice in China's official view. After all, for more than a century, the United States has been a profligate emitter of CO2, and it continues to refuse to face the fact that it is the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases.

But justice or no, the world is left to confront a situation in which the two largest polluters have opted out of the solution. If the United States will not lead, China will not follow, and the results will be tragic: both countries will suffer grievously, and so will the rest of the world.

What, then, is to be done?

The next US presidential election will present a fleeting moment of opportunity, if only the candidates can be persuaded to commit themselves to pursuing a major new cooperative effort to tackle our common problem.

What could be more promising than our leaders jointly seizing the reins of lapsed global leadership and guiding our two countries, and the world, out of this impasse?

How should we proceed? By forming a coalition of respected scientists, business leaders and policy experts, calling a high-level emergency summit with their counterparts in China and then enlisting the US presidential candidates to pledge to make the coal/climate change issue a priority. The ultimate goal should be to undertake a US$25 billion collaborative effort, with the United States providing capital, technological know-how and entrepreneurial and managerial skills and China providing some resources of its own, research, critical leadership among developing countries, its low-cost manufacturing base and its prodigious market energy.

Not only would such a plan be an encouraging first step toward solving the world's most urgent long-term problem, it would also bring the United States and China together in a new common endeavour. Indeed, if any initiative could begin to ease US fears that China may become an economic or military threat, and at the same time allay Chinese suspicions that this country seeks to deny China its rightful place in the world, global warming is the place to start.

Finally, for those realists who understand that costly projects are rarely a matter of pure altruism, it is worth remembering that an initiative of this kind presents candidates with exactly the kind of win-win proposition that worried voters are now eager to support. Moreover, should the United States and China find a way to undertake such a collaborative effort, it would not only be a historic expression of global political leadership, but could turn both nations into constructive partners at the centre of what may well become a dynamic and lucrative new sector of the global economy.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the United States and China have been irrevocably brought together by this common problem. Like it or not, the two countries have become each other's keeper, and unless our leaders can find new ways to cooperate on this epic challenge, the world will pay a bitter price.


Orville Schell is director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society and a longtime writer on China.

Homepage photo by LHOON