Spared By a Green Thumb

China’s position on the environment has been encouraging but implementation has hardly kept apace.

Is China serious about combating climate change? Its intentions are certainly good. Recent policies make it clear that the leadership knows what is at stake. Climate change and the range of accompanying environmental disasters will be a disaster for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

The real questions are these: Can China execute its well-meaning policies? Can Chinese companies embrace the opportunities that will develop in a low-carbon economy? Can China stake out a leadership position in innovative green technology? Or will it once again cede leadership to European, American and regional competitors such as the Japanese and South Koreans?

In 2007, China’s leadership signaled it was serious about climate change, with State Council approval of a National Climate Change Program. More recently, China has pledged to cut its energy intensity 20 percent during the current five-year plan, with Premier Wen Jiabao pledging to use an “iron hand” to meet the target. If that goal is met it will be through draconian top-down measures, not because of a real change in behavior. By 2020 China says it will reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40-45 percent compared to 2005 levels. That’s good, but not good enough for an economy that may nearly quadruple during those 15 years.

For these steps, impressive as they are, they won’t nearly be fast or deep enough to avert a climate disaster that is already bearing down upon the nation. There are still some people in China who see international climate negotiations as part of a plot to contain the country. In this version of events, climate negotiations threaten to be a modern version of the unequal treaties that were forced on an enfeebled China in the nineteenth century. Apologists outside of China – including some well-meaning NGOs – defend China’s slowness to act by saying that the country needs to get rich before it can get clean.

The reality is that Chinese people are the ones most threatened by environmental degradation. This was hammered home by speakers at a Climate Dialogue international conference on climate change in Hong Kong in early November.

Film maker John Liu, the founder of Earth’s Hope, has documented the degradation of the loess plateau, one of the birthplaces of Han civilization. Over many centuries, a rich and fertile area was systematically degraded through unsustainable agriculture. When farming gave out, grazing by goats and other animals completed the devastation.  Fifteen years ago, the area was little more than a dustbowl. But a large-scale program of terracing agriculture land and setting aside more ecologically sensitive areas has resulted in a complete change. Land that produced little more than dust storms has been restored to a stunning green landscape.

This re-greening project produced jobs and income for some of the poorest of the rural poor. This is a large-scale project encompassing 35,000 square kilometers – nearly 35 times the size of Hong Kong – and is exactly the sort of truly harmonious development that China so badly needs.

China cannot have water security, food security or energy security without climate security. Sun Zhen, deputy counsel of the National Development Reform Commission (NDRC), notes that environmental progress throughout the country will “save people’s lives,” particularly because of the prevalence of cancer and other local environmental problems in China.

There is growth in green. China today has the chance to be at the forefront of a low-carbon economy in high-tech areas. New industries are developing. In some areas China has the ability to become among the global leaders. The move away from internal combustion engines will be particularly important for China’s booming auto industry.

There is stiff competition. South Korean battery makers are among the leaders in the race to develop a commercially viable electric car. South Korea, like China, has a strong public-private partnership, with the country’s chaebol working closely with government and government-funded research institutes.

When it comes to the green economy, “I don’t think there’s any economy that is moving forward more quickly on a wider variety of fronts than South Korea,” says John Ashton, a top British climate negotiator, who was just in Seoul in early November.

Still, Ashton believes that the strength of China’s economy has given leaders and the country the “deeper cultural confidence” needed to adopt “change on a big scale” and move forward on climate issues.

But much more could be done to speed this transition. China should move toward a market price for fossil fuels. As long as carbon-based fuels like coal, oil and gas are cheap, behavior won’t change. The International Energy Agency estimates that global fossil fuel subsidies total US$ 550 billion a year. China is among those countries that price energy more cheaply than its long-run costs and officials are reluctant to charge energy’s true cost.

A lot has been accomplished in the nearly 20 years since the initial Rio Earth summit in 1992. But even a seasoned negotiator like Ashton concedes that there is relatively little to show for it. He is one of many that believe that what’s needed is a wartime-style mobilization. South Korea is good at that. That’s why it is likely the South Koreans will use the climate crisis to come out with better, stronger technology and companies. For a vast and sprawling China, the mobilization has not yet begun in earnest. We will wait to see whether the next five-year plan is a call to arms or simply a modest move in the right direction. Real prices for energy, prices that reflect the long-term costs of a carbon economy are also necessary. The potential for China is enormous. So, too, are the costs of delay. An iron hand is needed.

Originally published in Caixin. Can be accessed at english.caixin.com/2010-11-08/100196762.html