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Clearing the air with China

This year, China broke a 161-year-old temperature record. The environmental consequences of the country’s breakneck growth are evident, says Orville Schell, and coal is at the heart of the crisis.
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As bitterly cold air pours down from Siberia each winter, one of the charms of this ancient capital has been the sight of bundled-up people heading to Beijing's picturesque frozen canals and lakes for ice skating.

This year, however, a 161-year-old temperature record was broken, causing the ice to melt in early February. As young women walked Beijing's streets in short skirts instead of heavy winter clothes, Chinese were confronted in the starkest way with the phenomenon of global warming.

Indeed, almost everywhere one turns today in China, the environmental consequences of the country's economic juggernaut are evident. A recent trip northwest from Beijing through the coal-rich province of Shanxi revealed an almost endless landscape in black and white where the sun rarely shines because of uncontrolled air pollution from coal-fired plants that produce electrical power, cement and fertilizer. Meanwhile, glaciologists now report that high up on the Tibetan Plateau, where glaciers have for millennia fed most of the major river systems of Asia -- Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Brahmaputra -- there is an annual melt rate of 7%, giving these life-sustaining waterways estimated actuarial tables of less than two decades. In 2000, the U.N. Development Program reported that air pollution was already causing about 400,000 premature deaths a year. It is hardly surprising, as China is home to 16 of the 30 cities with the worst air pollution in the world.

In today's China, nature is on the run, and at the heart of this environmental crisis sits coal, from which the country derives 69% of its primary energy and 52% of its electricity. China uses well over 2.2 billion metric tonnes of the stuff per year -- more than the United States, India and Russia combined -- and produces more conventional harmful emissions than the United States.

Sometime next year, China could surpass the United States in greenhouse-gas emissions, but the average person in China still consumes less than one-fifth the energy the average American does. For China to achieve the same living standard as the United States, it would have to triple its use of coal, creating an enormous increase in both conventional pollutants and greenhouse gases. And make no mistake about it, China is angling to catch up. In fact, to keep up with this voracious demand for energy, a new conventional coal-fired power plant comes on-line in China every week.

China is not alone. The United States has 100 to 160 conventional coal-fired plants on the drawing boards, all with life spans of about 40 years, and none equipped to capture and sequester CO2. Indeed, as oil and gas have become increasingly expensive, countries rich in coal have found themselves relying on it ever more. The global consequences of continuing this trend without first adopting new "clean coal" technologies will be dire.

And for those unimpressed by the more distant threat of climate change, there is always the immediate problem of conventional pollutants. China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) estimates that sulphur-dioxide (SO2) emissions alone are causing China's GNP an annual loss of 12%, which is about equal to its impressive growth rate.

Meanwhile, the United States has opted out of the Kyoto Protocol, while China has signed on only as a developing country, which means it is obliged to meet no binding commitments to reduce its emissions. Last November, China did commit itself to deriving 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and to cutting the energy consumed per unit of GDP by 20% over five years. But during the first half of last year, Beijing not only failed to meet these targets but had an increase of 8% in energy consumption per unit of GDP. Initial reports from China's massive hydropower facility at the Three Gorges are also underwhelming; it appears that the Yangtze River isn't yet flowing fast enough to keep the turbines turning.

Concerned about keeping economic growth rates high enough to maintain social order, Chinese officials recently lobbied to tone down the alarming conclusions of the just-released report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and reaffirmed their unwillingness to commit China to any limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

"China is still a country with a huge developing population," said Qin Dahe, a ranking Chinese climate change negotiator, justifying his country's inaction.

There is a certain degree of justice in China's official view. After all, for more than a century, the United States has been a profligate emitter of CO2, and it continues to refuse to face the fact that it is the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases.

But justice or no, the world is left to confront a situation in which the two largest polluters have opted out of the solution. If the United States will not lead, China will not follow, and the results will be tragic: both countries will suffer grievously, and so will the rest of the world.

What, then, is to be done?

The next US presidential election will present a fleeting moment of opportunity, if only the candidates can be persuaded to commit themselves to pursuing a major new cooperative effort to tackle our common problem.

What could be more promising than our leaders jointly seizing the reins of lapsed global leadership and guiding our two countries, and the world, out of this impasse?

How should we proceed? By forming a coalition of respected scientists, business leaders and policy experts, calling a high-level emergency summit with their counterparts in China and then enlisting the US presidential candidates to pledge to make the coal/climate change issue a priority. The ultimate goal should be to undertake a US$25 billion collaborative effort, with the United States providing capital, technological know-how and entrepreneurial and managerial skills and China providing some resources of its own, research, critical leadership among developing countries, its low-cost manufacturing base and its prodigious market energy.

Not only would such a plan be an encouraging first step toward solving the world's most urgent long-term problem, it would also bring the United States and China together in a new common endeavour. Indeed, if any initiative could begin to ease US fears that China may become an economic or military threat, and at the same time allay Chinese suspicions that this country seeks to deny China its rightful place in the world, global warming is the place to start.

Finally, for those realists who understand that costly projects are rarely a matter of pure altruism, it is worth remembering that an initiative of this kind presents candidates with exactly the kind of win-win proposition that worried voters are now eager to support. Moreover, should the United States and China find a way to undertake such a collaborative effort, it would not only be a historic expression of global political leadership, but could turn both nations into constructive partners at the centre of what may well become a dynamic and lucrative new sector of the global economy.

Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the United States and China have been irrevocably brought together by this common problem. Like it or not, the two countries have become each other's keeper, and unless our leaders can find new ways to cooperate on this epic challenge, the world will pay a bitter price.


Orville Schell is director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society and a longtime writer on China.

Homepage photo by LHOON

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

中美关系

美国应该改变一贯的观念:认为中国是威胁而非合作对象。在全球变暖问题上,中美两个大国有责任和义务来合作共同解决这个问题。

总是坚持对抗的心态,和揪着意识形态问题而不愿放手和不开拓思路来解决问题,那将会是全球悲剧的开始。

面对气候变化问题,全球利益高于国家利益和地区利益。

Sino-American Relations

America should make some changes to the longlasting belief that China is a threat instead of someone to collaborate. On the issue of global warming, China and America, the two large nations, have responsibility and obligation to work together for a solution. It would be the beginning of a global tragedy if we insist on a conflicting attitude, stick to ideology problems and resist an open mind for problem solving. When we are facing climate change, global interest should be placed above national as well as regional interests.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

保护环境 彰显国力

推荐一篇人民日报的相关文章

Protect the environment, enpowering the nation.

An article from China Daily for recommendation. see
here

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

文中一个比较中美碳排放量的问题

"明年的某一天,中国的温室气体排放将超过美国,但中国的人均能源消费仍然不到美国的五分之一。" 个人认为笔者在上句中总量与人均的比较是不够科学的,会在某种程度上夸大真实问题。在同一个比较的语句中,要么都用总量,要么都用人均,才可以看到真正的差距,据我所知,中国的人均温室气体排放量要比美国低得多,好像是1/3还是 1/5?

About the carbon-emission comparison between China and America in the article

"Sometime next year, China could surpass the United States in greenhouse-gas emissions, but the average person in China still consumes less than one-fifth the energy the average American does." I personally think it would be more logical not to compare a total with an average, which will to some extend exaggerate the truth. The truth difference can only be revealed if, in the clause making comparison, we use two totals, or two averaged. As far as I know, the per capita greenhouse gas emission of China is much lower than that of the America, maybe 1/3 or 1/5?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为什么非要美国先行动?

感谢清晰的概述,但是下面这句真的一定如此么?“如果美国不带头减排,中国也不会跟着照做。这会带来悲剧性后果,无论中美两国,还是整个世界的遭遇都将非常悲惨。”美国必须带头么?为什么中国不能带头?如果中国带了头,美国会不跟着照做么?

Anthony Barnett

Why must the US lead?

Thanks for clear overview, but must the following claim be the case: "If the United States will not lead, China will not follow, and the results will be tragic: both countries will suffer grievously, and so will the rest of the world"? Does the US have to lead? Why can't China do so? If China did lead, would not the US have to follow?

Anthony Barnett

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

为什么?

让人难过的是不住在中国的人比住在中国的人更加关心中国的环境。

为什么会这样?

让住在中国的人意识到环境保护的重要性不是更关键么?

why?

what I feel really sad about is that people who live outside of china seem care so much more about China's environment than those people who live in the country.

Why is that???

isn't that more important for people who live in the country to realize the importance of protecting the environment????

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

对评论5的回答

答评论5:当你连温饱问题都不能解决的时候,你会去为气候变化担忧么?请试着站在他们的角度考虑问题。不要理所当然地认为他们应该跟你想得一样。

answer to why

a really quick answer to the comment 5 is, will you start worrying about blue sky and future climate change when you cannot have enough money to feed your children and yourself today? try to stand at their position and look at their immediate concerns rather than assuming they should think the same as you.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

谁应该先行动

斯科勒写的这篇文章最先于4月15日在《华盛顿邮报》刊出,所以目标主要是美国读者。对评论4的回复:中国有些做法确实已经领先于美国,比如汽车发动机的功效。但是中国可能还是需要继续从国外进口技术支持。两国人民难道就不能合作起来,促成政治上的主动么?斯科勒的建议应该被广泛地应用,正如我的博客里的文章
“The Gramsci-Schwarzenegger dialectic: China, the U.S. and climate change politics. ”所指出的那样。

Caspar Henderson

who leads?

This article by Schell first appeared in the Washington Post on 15 April, so was largely intended for US readers. In response to comment 4 notes, there are some ways in which China already leads the US - for example vehicle engine efficiency; but it is likely that China will continue to need and benefit from technological input from other nations. In terms of political initiatives, why should they not come from people in both countries, and others, working together. A task force of the kind Schell suggests could be broadened out - perhaps as I have suggested in The Gramsci-Schwarzenegger dialectic: China, the U.S. and climate change politics.

Caspar Henderson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

对评论6的回答

难道一定要等到温饱问题解决之后才去担心气候变化吗?
事实上如果环境再这么恶劣下去,很多人的生存都成问题,在连生存都成问题的条件下又如何解决温饱问题呢?
还有一个现实问题:越贫穷的人们离污染越近同时对其抵抗力也越差;而那些已经奔向小康的人却恰恰相反,不仅如此,这类人群也对环境污染的贡献也越大。
很多人没有把环保当一回事,那是因为这些人觉得环境保护是政府的事,他们还没有意识到环境的恶劣会威胁到自己的生活。所以提高民众的环保意识太重要了。
Juliet

Re Comment 6

Do we have to wait till adequate food and shelter are being provided before we start caring about climate change? Actually, if the environment worsens like this, it will be an issue of survival for many people. When our survival is endangered, wouldn't food and shelter be luxuries? Another reality is that the poorer are the more vulnerable to polution. And for those people who have achieved moderate prosperity, they are less vulnerable. Furthermore, they are contributing more to the pollution of the environment, even without recognising that a deteriorating environment could actually threaten their own lives. Therefore, it is extremely important to improve public awareness of environmental issues. Juliet

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

对评论8的回复

Juliet,我想你指出了一个事实就是穷人更易受到遭受环境污染带来的灾难,而富人却正在为污染火上浇油。这就是气候变化的真正情况。现在世界上的二氧化碳排放其实是那些发达国家在他们工业化的时候制造的,而不是现在发展中国家的责任,因为二氧化碳会在大气中存在100至200年。

但是不像以前的那些进行工业化的国家,现在的发展中国家更受自然资源和世界环境问题的限制。正如中国的污染问题,中国很大一部分污染都是因为生产出口产品造成的。这样发达国家的人民才能在享受廉价物品的同时还可以免受污染的困扰。这样的“污染出口”也是发达国家能逐步改善其环境的原因之一。

我并不是说中国不用注重保护自己的环境,相反的,没有什么比意识到现状的严重性及行动起来保护环境更重要的了。因为正如你所说的,这是一个马上事关很多人生存的问题。但是另一方面,发达国家就只是催促中国人民和政府保护环境,而他们自己却充当着“道德高尚”的监督员,摆出一幅事不关己的嘴脸,指手画脚颐指气使么?事实上除了盲目的责骂,发达国家可以通过多种办法为他们自己所造成的现状负责,而与发展中国家合作避免悲剧重演的空间也很大。

对于其他人比中国人自己更关注中国的(事实上是整个世界的)环境问题这一点我并不觉得有什么可鄙的。因为中国人到底有多关心他们的生存环境并不能从他们现在的所作所为看出来。当然,大多数人不可能看得太远,而这也包括发达国家的人。我们的决策总是不能避免妥协,人们总是先考虑眼下的需求。饮鸩止渴不能解决问题,但是这却正是现在很多人正在做的。你了解的越多,就会越迫切地觉得要尽快帮助人们摆脱这种两难境地。但是这需要更加富有,更加发达,并且幸运的话,更加文明的国家的帮助和行动。

王涛

Re Comment 8

Juliet, I think you pointed out a reality, that the poorer are the more vulnerable to pollution, and the richer are less vulnerable and contribute more to the pollution. This is true to the climate change. The CO2 emission that have taken the world to today's dangerous situation was by majority produced by developed countries during their industrialisation rather than the developing countries today, because CO2 stays in atmosphere for 100-200 years for its warming effects.

But unlike early industrialisation countries, today's developing countries are more constrained by natural resources and international environment issues. Similar to other pollution in China, a large proportion of the pollution generated in China is from manufacturing export products; therefore people in developed countries can enjoy cheap goods without suffering from pollution they cause. This kind of "pollution export" has been part of the reasons for the improved environment in developed counties.

I am not saying that Chinese people should not care about their own environment. Rather, nothing can be more important for us to realize the serious situation and to react to save our own environment, because as you say, it will be an issue of survival for many people soon. But on the other hand, shall people in developed just urge Chinese people and Chinese government to be more responsible, while themselves only remain as a "morally superior" international environment watchdog, pointing out this and that wrong with their clean hand? There are many ways for the developed countries to be more responsible for what they have caused and there is large scope to collaborate with the developing countries to avoid repeating the same mistakes again, for our own common environment, but scolding without considering their situation certainly isn't one of them.

I wouldn't feel really sad if there are people caring more about China's (but in fact it is the whole world's) environment than Chinese people themselves. In fact, how much Chinese people care about their living environment cannot be simply judged by what they are doing. Most of us, wherever, are unfortunately short-eyesight animal, not just in China or developing countries. Compromise is always made in our decision, and immediate demand always comes with high priority. 饮鸩止渴 is not a right thing to do, but is now a real thing done in many places. The more you know, the more urgent you will feel to help them out of the dilemma situation. But that need real actions from the more wealthy, more developed and hopefully more civilized countries.

Tao Wang

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

很好的评论!!!

我强烈支持评论9中的观点!!王涛做得好!环境问题是全人类的问题,合作才能找到解决的办法。

Good comment!!!

I strongly support the opinions elaborated in Comment nine!! Well done, Tao Wang. Environmental problems face all human beings, thus coordinated efforts are needed to find solutions.