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China could lead the fight for a cooler climate

China may have become the default excuse for inaction by western politicians and idle citizens, says Jonathon Porritt, but its contradictions may even now help it lead in fighting climate change.

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If nothing else, as we move into the final months of the Bush Administration, one has to admit that he has got a good sense of humour. After nearly seven years of applied process-wrecking intransigence on climate change (as dummy to Dick Cheney’s virtuoso ventriloquism), US president George W. Bush has now offered himself to the world as the only global leader who can rescue us from climate meltdown. Both Al Gore and Bill Clinton (whose Climate Change Initiative is beginning to get some real traction, especially with city mayors around the world) must be quaking in their boots at the prospects of “Bring-it-on-Bush” challenging them for star billing in the climate change leadership stakes.

To be fair, it is more or less consistent with what he was saying when he was still in complete denial on climate change and its potential impacts. What was deemed sacrosanct even then is the American way of life and the US role in the global economy. Nothing – not even a potential 3 degree Celsius average temperature increase by the end of the century – must be allowed to jeopardise that over-arching imperative.

So what he is now offering by way of climate change leadership is to act as an advocate for “mega-fixes”: geo-engineering on a global scale to ensure we avoid climate-induced catastrophe without having to change our current behaviour in any one single particular.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are already being invested in such mega-fixes. Some favour messing around in space, positioning vast parabolic mirrors in outer space to reflect back large amounts of incoming solar radiation. Others are fixated on imitating the effects of volcanic eruptions by using vast numbers of high-altitude aircraft to put sunlight-reflecting sulphuric acid droplets into the atmosphere.

A rival camp wants to fix the oceans by dumping vast amounts of iron particles into the water to stimulate blooms of plankton which will then suck the carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere before sinking down to the ocean floor to form the next aeon’s equivalent to the White Cliffs of Dover. Others just want to use bog-standard fertiliser to achieve the same effect. And no less a guru than Gaia theorist James Lovelock has weighed in with a scheme of his own, involving tens of thousands of vast pipes to bring cold water up to the surface of the ocean to speed the absorption of CO2.

Lovelock is right on one thing: if we continue to defer serious measures to address climate change (basically energy efficiency, renewables and carbon capture and storage), then we will get to that point where the only way of avoiding apocalypse – the complete disintegration of human civilisation – will be to try and mega-fix our way out of it at the very last moment: a small probability of success, inconceivably massive costs, but giving the boys with their toys their final day (literally) in the sun.

Counter-intuitively, I am much more interested in the possibility of global leadership coming not from the US but from China. At one level this is, of course, insane. Within the next few months, China will overtake the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.As the entire world and its dog now know, China is building one new coal-powered station a week. China is building more than 20 spanking-new international airports. China is as immodestly in love with the motorcar as are the Americans. And China’s environment is quite literally falling to pieces.

All of which means that China has become the default excuse for every procrastinating politician and idle, indifferent citizen who was never going to do anything anyway. “What’s the point, mate, with China building one new power station every minute?” Or words to that effect.

I have yet to hear a single politician mention that China is closing down more power stations than it is building, already has enormous amounts of wind power available to it, has the most aggressive expansion programme for renewable sources of energy of any country in the world, has set some extremely tough targets for improving both energy efficiency and water efficiency, and is just about the only country in the world to have done any serious legwork on introducing a better way of measuring GDP to take proper account of environmental and climate costs.

And there is much more in that particular pipeline too. Unlike our politicians (let alone our citizenry), who really don’t understand the immediacy and the seriousness of the impacts of climate change, China’s politicians absolutely get it. They are already experiencing those impacts, directly and very painfully, in terms of accelerating desertification, reductions in agricultural yields, saline incursion into key groundwater aquifers near the coast, changing patterns of precipitation, increased incidence of storms and droughts. As Dong Weng Jie, director general of the Beijing Climate Centre puts it: “Records for worst-in-a-century rainstorms, droughts and heat waves are being broken more and more often.”

A lot of this already translates into real economic costs – lost agricultural productivity, increased costs in pumping water, horrific health costs with tens of millions of people profoundly affected by both water and air pollution. Worse yet, from the perspective of the Chinese government, a lot of that pain translates straight through into rapidly rising levels of social dissent, with a significant proportion of the wave of mass disturbances in China today (more than 80,000 in 2005 according to China’s own Ministry of Public Security) attributable to protests over water, land and pollution. President Hu Jintao had another crack at the sustainability challenge in his opening address to the Communist Party Congress on October 15.

If “unsustainable” means anything, what is happening in China is just that. But unlike our leaders, China’s leaders know it. The fact that their sustainability problems go on getting worse doesn’t mean they are in denial. It’s just that the solutions can be costly, and need driving down through the party and political bureaucracies with infinitely greater purpose than is currently the case, especially as they haven’t yet managed to explain to their citizens that business-as-usual (as in 1,100 new cars on the roads of Beijing every day) just isn’t going to work. But who has?

What people forget is that China has already started to invest huge amounts of money in a whole host of clean-tech innovations – in wind, solar and hydrogen in particular. This may take a while to work its way through the system, but China has an eye as much on future export markets as on sorting out its own domestic problems. Many now believe that some of the most exciting potential breakthroughs on photovoltaics and hydrogen-powered vehicles will be coming out of China any time soon – and not out of the US.

And when you are training around 400,000 new undergraduates in engineering every year, compared to the US figure of 70,000, there is clearly going to be some kind of macro-economic strategy in place to move China on from being the “industrial workshop to the world” to much higher added-value, post-industrial production breakthroughs.

Trying to read China is massively complicated at the best of times – an aggressively capitalist system within the embrace of communism is bound to throw up an unprecedented cacophony of contradictions. So it is perfectly possible for China to be both the world’s most unsustainable and environmentally devastated nation on Earth, and the nation re-inventing the cutting edge of sustainable technological breakthroughs all at the same time.

Funnily enough, one can point to almost exactly the same set of contradictions in the US. The Bush Administration, for all its other egregious failings, has been pumping in billions of tax dollars to sustainable energy and waste projects, even as it presides over an economy that has got more wasteful and more environmentally devastating to the rest of the world year after year.

Little wonder that one apparently has to be a former politician, like Gore or Clinton, to get really serious about climate change leadership.


Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future, chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission; and author of Capitalism as if the World Matters; Revised Edition 2007 (in paperback), Earthscan – available through Forum for the Future website

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匿名 | Anonymous




王韬 (Tao WANG) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Sussex Energy Group 廷道尔气候变化研究中心和苏塞克斯能源研究小组


This is a wonderful article! The author's language charm has been shown completely in a special British way. A fact which is often ignored is that China is making great efforts against climate change, but many politicians and ignorant people take China as pretext. The article also points out that the problems China is facing in policy-making aren't irreconcilable, and it's naive to resolve China's problems in simply ways. However, the translation is not so good for many terrfic words and comments haven't been embodied in Chinese. I hope the translator can polish it if conditions allow.
For example, “What’s the point, mate, with China building one new power station every minute?” should have been translated into “如果中国每分钟都建成一个新的电站,那我们做这些又有什么意义呢?”and "I have yet to hear a single politician mention..." should be “我还从没有听到一个政治家提到过……". Due to time and lack of space, I couldn't list all. I hope to see better translation, which could make readers better understand the author's meaning.
王韬 (Tao WANG) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Sussex Energy Group

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Sincere thanks to Wang Tao for his excellent comment

Mr. Wang Tao's comment was right on the spot. It was also pragmatic of him to suggest corrections for our translation; since we were pressed for time, the article's translation did contain certain mistakes, and we are currently retranslating it. I look forward to your renewed attentiveness.

Lucky (chief editor at China Dialogue, Beijing office)

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匿名 | Anonymous



What is good in theory...

I quite appreciate Mr. Porritt's article. What he says is making an awful lot of sense. What is in interesting is that he sounds like what a lot of non-Chinese are saying (i.e. China should be able to lead on..., based on it's situation), but which very few, if any Chinese are saying (and I welcome you to correct me if you have evidence otherwise).

I recently participated in discussions with some of the highest level authorities in national government, some of the most prestigeous academics at Tsinghua and other universities, leading foreign and Chinese grassroots NGOs, large factory owners, and other informed officials in large city governments.

The curious thing is that not one of them agreed that China would become a green technology exporting nation in the near future. They all cited the need for more tech from the west, and that it has always been China's role to replicate, not necissarily to create.

My question is, why does this Chinese view differ so dramatically from what non-Chinese are saying? In spite of all the evidence of knowing and acting (and investing) on this problem in China, why is there still the feeling of reliance on outside technology, outside expertise? Which perspective am I missing?

[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



That’s absolutely great!

Being a Chinese, just felt jolly after reading this article. However, by hook or by crook, I still wish that both Chinese and US government are able to have done something to tackle climate change. We are facing the same problem, blaming on each other will not be able to resolve the problem. As pointed out by the author, the Chinese government is currently pressurised by both internal and external environmental stress, which has been forced the government to act vigorously. However, how to present the same pressure against US government? And how to let them to become a real LEADER?

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匿名 | Anonymous



misplaced priorities

Snicker, and comment no 4

I agree with what you're saying. I think global warming is becoming an issue where citizens are ahead of governments. But Western politicians are scared of being voted out and Chinese politicians are scared of social unrest. Our leaders actions don't match the seriousness of the problem.

I'm no doubt going to be attacked for being anti-China here, but given the scientific information we're receiving from the UN why is China focusing on sending rockets to the moon? Surely this is a case of misplaced priorities? The people who built ChangE1 must be among the brightest minds in the world. Why can't they be put to use to develop technology to fight climate change? The same goes for the West. The amount of money the US and its partners have wasted on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been much better spent on climate change. It really is sad that leaders of all sides have not got their priorities right.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




first I would like to point out there is a mistake of the translation of my comment (no 4). I said in Chinese that both American and Chinese government need to "more" on climate change (instead of are able to have done something).
I think it's natural that Chinese view differs from what non-Chinese are saying? Even when facing the same problem, we have different stands and interests to keep. And I think there is a mistake in my comment. No need to press America to become the leader. Any blame won't do any good on solving the problem. If everybody can check him/herself and make improvements and corections as best as one can, then it won't be impossible to tackle climate change.

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匿名 | Anonymous



today and tomorrow

To snicker,

I think Mr Porritt, and many other people holding similar points, are talking about the future, hopefully so far away; while your Chinese audience are talking about current technological capacity of China. But there might be a strategic thinking, as China is already struggle to get more green technology transfer, it might be even harder if they start claiming themselves leaders in green technology. But I think China still has long way to go before leading green technology. Technology and knowledge are like no other, investment and action cannot always guarantee the outcome. The accumulation process is so long that waiting for China to develop these technologies alone is wasting our precious time fighting against climate change. China could lead actions in combating climate change; but removing technology transfer barriers, wider and more constructive international collaboration hold a key to unleash China’s ability.

王韬 (Tao WANG) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Sussex Energy Group

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


在一个有多重主要任务的世界,难道致力于同时解决这些主要任务就叫做工作重心偏移吗?如果中国必须得保持经济增长、消除贫困、帮助弱势群体远离贫穷和社会动荡,我便不得不说这些工作都和应对气候变化一样重要。唯一的区别在于前者是国家的问题,而后者是全球议题。中国发展“长征一号”运载火箭不是为了炫耀其空间技术,这也是中国发展计划的一部分。“长征一号”工程及其它航空项目一样,不仅仅是激发了某些科技的发展应用。同样的,美国也不是那么愚蠢,与伊拉克和阿富汗开战是因为钱多地没处花。有趣的是你和另一位读者同时引用了“长征一号”和伊拉克战争,这是十分不恰当的类比。请见http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/summary/1440-Ecological-civilisation-is-the-way-forward 我就没有必要重复解释了。中国第一任总理周恩来在1955年召开的万隆会议上提出了一个非常著名的观点:“求同存异”。它和"共同但有区别责任"原则有异曲同工之妙,但是又不径相同。互相指责并不能解决问题,但可惜的是我们很多人都是这样,从对方那里找理由解释自己的不作为,更重要的是,我们缺乏互相了解体谅和“求同存异”的精神。不仅是有些个人用自己的衡量标准对别的国家下定论,国家与国家之间也经常发生这样的事。王韬---廷道尔气候变化研究中心和苏塞克斯能源研究小组

Unity in diversity

In a world when there is more than one priority, does that mean anything focusing on more than one priority is misplaced priority? If China thinks it has to keep economic growth and eradicating poverty, prevent vulnerable people falling back to poverty and social unrest, I am sorry but I cannot see it less justified than combating climate change. The only difference is the first one is national issue while the second one is global.

China develops ChangE1 not just to show off its space technology but part of growth plan. The whole project of ChangE1 as well as other space project is not just a boost to some specific technology. Similarly America is not stupid enough go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan just because it has too much cash to throw. It is such an interesting coincidence that you and another gentleman both cited ChangE1 and Iraq war together, a rather inappropriate analogy. See http://www.chinadialogue.net/article/summary/1440-Ecological-civilisation-is-the-way-forward.

There is no need to repeat the same words. China’s first premier Zhou Enlai has a famous viewpoint on the Bandung Conference in 1955, “求同存异(Unity in diversity)”. It has some echo on “Common but Differentiated Responsibility”, but not all the same. We are going nowhere by blaming each other, but sadly that is what many of us are doing, finding excuse from others for our own inaction, and most of all, lack of understanding to each other and the spirit of “Unity in diversity”. Making judgement on other nation using self-centric measurement does not just happen in individuals, but nations too.

王韬 (Tao WANG) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research & Sussex Energy Group 廷道尔气候变化研究中心和苏塞克斯能源研究小组

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匿名 | Anonymous



I agree that poverty needs to be eradicated, but that needs to be done sustainably. Our current methods of development and poverty eradication are not sustainable and with the global population set to increase by nearly 3 billion by the middle of the century the strain on and competition for resources will be even greater.

Can you not see, Tao, that if we don't move to a more sustainable track and do it soon, then all the new cars, posh apartments, MP3 players and computers will have been for nothing? The human race is heading for self destruction. Surely solving that problem has to come before poverty eradication? What's the point of reaching zero poverty if when we arrive at that destination there isn't a planet left? But worst of all, you don't seem to recognise that it will be those poor people in the south and west of China who will be among the first in the world who will find themselves living in an uninhabitable environment. By saying that China should refocus its priorities, I'm not trying to deprive the country of the greatness you so crave, I'm saying that we need to get this global warming problem sorted first or all our efforts to develop will have been in vain.
So yes, I do see sending a rocket to the moon at this present stage in human history as unnecessary. I wasn't making an analogy between the Iraq war and ChangE1. That is not the meaning of the word analogy. I was listing examples of wastes of brainpower and cash that we are currently witnessing around the world in the face of such danger. Anyway, how does sending a rocket to the moon help the peasants of Gansu?

Don't worry that I'm singling out China and ignoring my own country's lack of environmental efforts: I've written much harsher words than this to British MPs.

I think where we differ is that I see climate change as an emergency of epic proportions, while you don't. Go and read the IPCC reports.

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匿名 | Anonymous



the emperor is far away

The small illuminated elitist leadership in Beijing may well understand the urgency of action, and set ambitious green targets, but it remains to be seen if that is anything more than wishfull thinking. There are plenty of Chinese laws protecting IP rights as well, and it is forbidden to drive your car in the bike lane as far as i know.