The China Syndrome

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The China Syndrome

Empire of Carbon

Published: May 14, 2009
TAIPEI, Taiwan

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Paul Krugman

I have seen the future, and it won't work.

These should be hopeful times for environmentalists. Junk science no longer
rules in Washington. President Obama has spoken forcefully about the need to
take action on climate change; the people I talk to are increasingly optimistic
that Congress will soon establish a cap-and-trade system that limits emissions
of greenhouse gases, with the limits growing steadily tighter over time. And
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
wealthy nations.

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

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