China Environmental Law

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Playing With Fire

April 23rd, 2009 · 3 Comments

There have been a number of reports recently about how China is taking the lead in the global green economy.  When directed at a US audience, these reports are often designed to spur more action by the government to support the development of renewable energy resources.  The argument goes like this: our competitor, the wily China, is producing new green jobs and technology while the US is missing the boat.  John Kerry has recently entered the act with talk of China taking a “competitive edge” in greentech.  The metaphors always pitch it as a contest: China is beating the US or the US is losing the race.

In most cases the reports are only half right.  For instance, China is among the leaders in solar PV panel production and wind turbine manufacturing for basically the same reason it is a leader in the manufacture of shoes.  It costs less to produce things in China.  While government policies specifically  designed to encourage renewable energy projects and the production of renewable energy hardware have had some effect, the fact that wages are significantly lower, environmental, health and safety regulations are less stringently enforced (see this Washington Post story, for instance) and good old fashion “Buy China” measures (the 70% domestic content rule for wind turbines used in Chinese wind power projects) have been adopted are the main drivers creating China’s green economy.  The fact that there are fewer impediments on government action and limited vehicles for public participation in decision making also play an important role.  Most of these “advantages” can not (and should not) be replicated in the US.  The China model, in short, does not provide much guidance to US policy makers.

Be that as it may, the intentions of the people authoring and pushing the China-as-green-superstar reports are generally good.  The US can and should do much more.  The problem with pushing the competition theme comes when the political focus shifts from the development of a green and sustainable energy policy to a consideration of carbon reduction efforts.  Having presented a picture of China as our chief competitor in the global green economy–a country that is reportedly winning the race–how do you then justify the US agreeing to carbon limits that are significantly more stringent than those applicable to China?

I am firmly in the camp that believes the US must undertake carbon reduction responsibilities considerably greater than those imposed on China (see here). When the time comes I will help marshal all the moral and policy arguments that support significant differentiation.  But winning the domestic political support needed to ratify an international treaty that contains such differentiation is going to be hard enough; the last thing ratification supporters need is to have people out there stoking up the China-as-competitor fires.  When the opposition Senator asks in a smooth drawl “Six months ago you told me China was our chief competitor in the new economy and that they were beating the pants off us, now you’re telling me I should get into the ring with them with both hands tied behind my back?”  It doesn’t matter what the answer is, in sound-bite nation the damage is done.  I am afraid climate treaty proponents will lose the Rust Belt democrats (and other fence sitters) they will need to get a treaty ratified if the competition theme is pushed too hard now.

Cooperation, not competition, should be the watchword when speaking about China in the energy/climate context.  The reports issued by the Asia Society/Pew Center on Global Climate Change and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings in February (discussed here and in subsequent posts) skillfully lay out the mutual benefits of cooperation.

For those who insist on characterizing these efforts in competitive terms, be careful that the tactics used to win the energy policy battle, don’t come back to impede the winning of the climate war.  The stakes in this game are phenomenally high; there shouldn’t be any careless mistakes.

Tags: US-China relations · carbon emissions · climate change · miscellany · renewable energy

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TVhead // Apr 24, 2009 at 12:01 am

    I don’t see any inconsistency in the two messages: China is trying to lead in the green economy; so US should catch up, with the carbon cap as a spur (not a handcuff). The challenge is to really frame the cap as such when communicating to the public, which is difficult.

    But i do agree that there are a lot of exaggeration in terms of China’s “greenness.” Would that embolden China with its defiant position in the climate talks? Maybe this is something Kerry should be concerned with…

  • 2 cmcelwee // Apr 24, 2009 at 11:16 am

    My concern was not with consistency (I agree that the two messages are not “inconsistent”), but with political rhetoric. I think it will be hard to to sell a carbon cap as a necessary development spur when we’ve painted China as having created a green economic bullet train without any such incentive, indeed, while it is in fact churning out carbon like there’s no tomorrow.

  • 3 qmmayer // Apr 29, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I’m not sure I see the tension either, although opponents would no doubt stretch for anything if a carbon bill actually started to move. How do we spur the “green economy” without creating the incentives through caps or taxes? If the idea is just to pump in money, then we’ll need some kind of cap / auction to keep it running.

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