Will China Be the Enforcer of the Paris Climate Agreement?
Greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants
by Gaius Publius
It's amazing what can be done by a government determined to do it. In the U.S., our approach to the climate crisis is to use the "invisible hand" of the market and be careful not to get in the way of "wealth creation" (for billionaires). The Chinese don't have those constraints. Yes, they want to make their billionaires wealthier, but that's not their primary goal. There's a very nationalist strain in China, and to a greater extent, I think, than in the U.S., the Chinese government wants what's best for China, and not just its wealthy.
Put differently, the economic policy of the Chinese government is to grow the country, including its billionaires. It often seems that U.S. economic policy is to grow our billionaires at the expense of the country. That may be no more evident than in the following story.
"You Talk about Fixing the Climate, But What about China?"
One of the main reasons the climate foot-draggers, in both parties, want to go slow on climate in the U.S. (aside both parties' allegiance to "wealth creation") is the China argument. In simple form, it says, "Whatever the U.S. does to save the climate will be undone by China, so why bother?" I don't think that argument holds true any longer.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in The Telegraph (my emphasis):
China is the low-carbon superpower and will be the ultimate enforcer of the COP21 climate deal in ParisDo read the rest; it's fascinating.
Chinese scientists have published two alarming reports in a matter of weeks. Both conclude that the Himalayan glaciers and the Tibetan permafrost are succumbing to catastrophic climate change, threatening the water systems of the Yellow River, the Yangtze and the Mekong.
The Tibetan plateau is the world’s "third pole", the biggest reservoir of fresh water outside the Arctic and Antarctica. The area is warming at twice the global pace, making it the epicentre of global climate risk.
One report was by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The other was a 900-page door-stopper from the science ministry, called the “Third National Assessment Report on Climate Change”.
The latter is the official line of the Communist Party. It states that China has already warmed by 0.9-1.5 degrees over the past century – higher than the global average - and may warm by a further five degrees by 2100, with effects that would overwhelm the coastal cities of Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou. The message is that China faces a civilizational threat.
Whether or not you accept the hypothesis of man-made global warming is irrelevant. The Chinese Academy and the Politburo do accept it. So does President Xi Jinping, who spent his Cultural Revolution carting coal in the mining region of Shaanxi. This political fact is tectonic for the global fossil industry and the economics of energy.
Until last Saturday, it was an article of faith among Western climate sceptics and some in the fossil industry that China would never sign up to the COP21 accord in Paris or accept the "ratchet" of five-year reviews.
They have since fallen back to a second argument, claiming that the deal is meaningless because China will not sacrifice coal-driven growth to please the West, and without China the accord unravels since it now emits as much CO2 as the US and Europe combined.
This political judgment was perhaps plausible three or four years ago in the dying days of the Hu Jintao era. Today it is clutching at straws.
Eight of the world’s biggest solar companies are Chinese. So is the second biggest wind power group, GoldWind. China invested $90bn in renewable energy last year and is already the superpower of low-carbon industries. It installed more solar in the first quarter than currently exists in France.
The Chinese plan to build six to eight nuclear plants every year, reaching 110 by 2030. They intend to lever this into worldwide nuclear dominance, as we glimpsed from the Hinkley Point saga.
Home-grown energy is central to Xi Jinping's drive for strategic security. China's leaders know what happened to Japan under Roosevelt's energy embargo in the late 1930s, and they don't trust the sea lanes for supplies of coal and liquefied natural gas. Nor do they relish reliance on Russian gas.
Isabel Hilton from China Dialogue says the energy shift has reached a point where Beijing has a vested commercial interest in holding the world to the Paris deal. “The Chinese think they can dominate low-carbon technologies,” she said....
The Chinese Century & the Next Great Power Source
There are a couple of takeaways here. One relates to the fact that, as we all know, the U.S. has been competing economically with China to make sure the 21st century won't be the Chinese Century the way the 20th century was the American Century.
So the first takeaway is this — thanks to our billionaires and their control of the U.S. political process, that competition is over. In a world without a climate crisis, China will win economically. The U.S. has already, as part of an unspoken national economic policy, handed China control of the world's manufacturing, in exchange for major additions to American CEO bottom lines, like Phil Knight's at Nike. Put simply, U.S. national economic policy is to make China and Phil Knight rich at the expense of most Americans. Both China and Phil Knight have taken that deal.
The second takeaway is an insight from Kevin Phillips' book American Theocracy, that world power ("greatness") moves to the country that adopts the next great power source. For a while, the Dutch dominated with wind power (they really did), until coal power allowed the British to take their place as the world's leading nation. The U.S. ran its economy on oil, not coal, and supplanted the British. The next great energy source is going to be renewables (if we can get to a stable world run on renewables).
The Chinese are counting on that being true, that the first nation that owns and runs on renewables is the next great national power. They want to control the world's manufacturing and control the next-generation power source. They see this as their path to the Chinese Century, and they're going to try very hard to get there. Again, from the article: “The Chinese think they can dominate low-carbon technologies”. In a world without catastrophic climate change, it's likely they're right.
But the third takeaway is this:
- If I'm right that we have at most 10 years to start a massive conversion to zero-carbon power generation in the U.S....
- If warming of at least +1.5 °C is "baked in" and guaranteed no matter what we do, and not stopping means we can only go higher that that...
- If we don't soon have a national "wake up call" that motivates us to emergency action...
Dismissing the "China Argument"
It's true that we can't "fix" (mitigate, in climate-speak) or avoid the worst of the climate crisis without both the U.S. and China lending a serious hand. If the Chinese are going to do their part — and it looks like they are — it does come down to us then. The Chinese are not saying, "Let's wait for the U.S. before we get serious." They're taking a leadership role and acting. Time to take a page from that book and do our own part? Looks like the "China argument" just went away.