The China Syndrome
Empire of Carbon
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Published: May 14, 2009
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
I have seen the future, and it won’t work.
These should be hopeful times for environmentalis
once America acts, we can expect much of the world to follow our lead. But that still leaves the problem of China, where I have been for most of the last week.
Like every visitor to China, I was awed by the scale of the country’s development. Even the annoying aspects — much of my time was spent viewing the Great Wall of Traffic — are byproducts of the nation’s economic success. But China cannot continue along its current path because the planet can’t handle the strain.
The scientific consensus on prospects for global warming has become much more pessimistic over the last few years. Indeed, the latest projections from reputable climate scientists border on the apocalyptic. Why? Because the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios.
And the growth of emissions from China — already the world’s largest producer of carbon dioxide — is one main reason for this new pessimism.
China’s emissions, which come largely from its coal-burning electricity plants, doubled between 1996 and 2006. That was a much faster pace of growth than in the previous decade. And the trend seems set to continue: In January, China announced that it plans to continue its reliance on coal as its main energy source and that to feed its economic growth it will increase coal production 30 percent by 2015. That’s a decision that, all by itself, will swamp any emission reductions elsewhere.
So what is to be done about the China problem?
Nothing, say the Chinese. Each time I raised the issue during my visit, I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels. After all, they declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today’s
And they’re right. It is unfair to expect China to live within constraints that we didn’t have to face when our own economy was on its way up. But that unfairness doesn’t change the fact that letting China match the West’s past profligacy would doom the Earth as we know it.
Historical injustice aside, the Chinese also insisted that they should not be held responsible for the greenhouse gases they emit when producing goods for foreign consumers. But they refused to accept the logical implication of this view — that the burden should fall on those foreign consumers instead, that shoppers who buy Chinese products should pay a "carbon tariff" that reflects the emissions associated with those goods’ production. That, said the Chinese, would violate the principles of free trade.
Sorry, but the climate-change consequences of Chinese production have to be taken into account somewhere. And anyway, the problem with China is not so much what it produces as how it produces it. Remember, China now emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, even though its G.D.P. is only about half as large (and the United States, in turn, is an emissions hog compared with Europe or Japan).
The good news is that the very inefficiency of China’s energy use offers huge scope for improvement. Given the right policies, China could continue to grow rapidly without increasing its carbon emissions. But first it has to realize that policy changes are necessary.
There are hints, in statements emanating from China, that the country’s policy makers are starting to realize that their current position is unsustainable. But I suspect that they don’t realize how quickly the whole game is about to change.
As the United States and other advanced countries finally move to confront climate change, they will also be morally empowered to confront those nations that refuse to act. Sooner than most people think, countries that refuse to limit their greenhouse gas emissions will face sanctions, probably in the form of taxes on their exports. They will complain bitterly that this is protectionism, but so what? Globalization doesn’t do much good if the globe itself becomes unlivable.
It’s time to save the planet. And like it or not, China will have to do its part.
As a physicist and one who has studied the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, I have reached the conclusion that catastrophic effects on climate due to greenhouse gas generation by humans are very unlikely. In addition, studies of historical atmospheric and climate conditions offer no basis for a conclusion that the earth’s climate faces more than normal variability. In fact, based on historical trends, the most likely change would be for a cooler climate. Recent work has shown that soot contributes significantly to artic warming. It is also known that solar activity is strongly correlated with mean earth temperature. Neither factor was adequately considered in the IPCC report. In my opinion, hardly anything would be more misguided than the imposition of draconian measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while the science is so unsettled. And hardly anything could be more immoral than trying to force the poor people of the undeveloped nations to remain in poverty. I will welcome a vigorous debate on these issues as the U.S. congress considers climate issues.
Well you tell my fruit trees which are all flowering, some even bearing fruit, just two weeks out from the official start of winter….
So my peaches and forsythia did the same last year in a month that was cooler than normal. What’s your point?
Exactly. Due to the significant cooling – on average – we have experienced that is finally noticeable this year and last year we have actually had real Spring seasons (instead of straight from a warm winter to "Summer"). It is much cooler where I live than in the same area between 5 and 20 years ago. Of course, this colder is only getting back to what is was like in the 1960s and earlier 1970s when the consensus scientists were worried about the coming ice age.
All that said, there is no reason not keep your country clean ad China’s head over heels policy of growth is destroying their environment even if it is not having much if any significant effect on the globe as a whole. Unfortunately, the matrix supports this and all the other problems we on the CM site are aware of…
My point Stan, is that I live in Australia….. It is officially AUTUMN now, and it will be winter in two weeks time….. but my trees think it’s SPRING! I have three banana bunches on the go right now, and we’re likely to have frosts within a month, and not only will my bananas drop off, but the stress of it all might well kill the trees too.
Normally, at this time of year, night time temps should be dropping to 5 or 7 degrees C, but it’s still 12 to 17…. and all our wet season weather has moved from Jan/Feb to Apr/May. We had two floods last month, and our capital city, Brisbane had the worst flood since 1974…… except in 1974 it occured in Jan which is when the sub-tropis is supposed to have floods.
The weather patterns are all screwed…..