When President Barack Obama announced his plan Monday to slash emissions from U.S. power plants, he cast it as nothing less than a moral crusade – a response to a defining issue for the next generations.
Despite the utterly predictable bickering surrounding the plan, there really is no reason to think that the president doesn’t feel strongly about this issue, and about the need for the United States to be at the forefront of the global response.
But what about the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases? What about China? After years of claiming it was still too poor and backward to cut emissions, China last year finally committed to reducing greenhouse gases. While it’s certainly true that there are many in China deeply concerned about the effects of pollution and climate change, China’s policy will be influenced by a healthy dose of practical politics, as well.
China’s Communist Party leaders already face deep public frustration over choking levels of pollution. There are dire warnings of natural disasters or crop failures caused by climate change. And in order to keep the economy growing, they know they have to manage a delicate transition away from an aging model that relies on energy-intensive manufacturing and exports.
In the United States, the weight of Obama’s plan is likely to fall primarily on old plants that use coal to generate electricity. But the U.S. has been weaning itself from coal for some time.
China, on the other hand, burns about as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and it dumps nearly twice the amount of carbon dioxide into the air as the U.S. Together, the two are responsible for more than 40 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to Scientific American.
For years, China and the U.S. have avoided dramatic steps on climate change, in part by arguing that the other guy has to act first. But Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed last fall that both of their countries would reduce emissions.
Obama’s plan announced Monday calls for the U.S. to reduce emissions from power plants by nearly a third below 2005 levels in the next 15 years. It’s a major piece of a plan to reduce overall emissions 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030.
China says its emissions should peak around 2030 – and that it is trying to ensure it happens sooner than that.
You can certainly question the worth of any such government promises. And even if you believe them, you can argue that neither the Americans nor the Chinese are acting fast enough. In addition to wind and solar, China also is plunging ahead with nuclear projects – another problem altogether.
But some of the numbers China is throwing around are pretty astounding – for instance, adding an amount of carbon-neutral generating capacity by 2030 that nearly matches the entire U.S. output from all sources.
Anyone who has been to Beijing — or traveled virtually anywhere in China — probably has a story or two about the choking air pollution (leave aside the rivers and lakes that have been poisoned and the land that has been degraded). It matters to Chinese people, too – an estimated 1 million of them die prematurely every year because of it.
While the government is careful not to allow too much information about all kinds of public protests, it has over a number of years diligently reported overall numbers. According to one widely cited government report, the State of the Environment, there were 712 “incidents” – most of them probably protests – in 2013, a 31 percent increase from the year before.
While the government manages to ensure that protests remain scattered and disorganized, organizers of popular movements elsewhere have pointed out that everyone can rally around environmental issues: It’s easy to make the case that a government’s handling of environmental issues is a test of how much it actually cares about the well being of its people.
Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier, acknowledges that pollution is “a blight on people’s quality of life and a trouble that weighs on their hearts.”
Then there was this striking public acknowledgement by the country’s top meteorologist this spring that China’s climate has warmed more than the world’s average for the past century, and that the country faced threats to harvests and infrastructure megaprojects because of climate change. Zheng Guogang spoke of a potential “huge impact” of climate change on China, and of the possibility of “climate disasters.”
Finally, China simply needs a different kind of economy from the one driven by energy-intensive manufacturing and exports that has created so much wealth in recent decades. Growth has slowed, in part because global demand for China’s exports has slowed. The U.S. is years into a so-so recovery from the Great Recession; Europe is still struggling.
China’s leaders know the long-term answer is to focus closer to home. This very delicate transition is one of Xi’s main tasks as president and Communist Party leader. Among other things, it means meeting the growing domestic demand for services – not the type of thing that requires huge factory complexes and power plants belching clouds of coal smoke.