Friday, May 15, 2009

"I Have Seen the Future, and it Won't Work"

Savage piece about Chinese greenhouse gas emissions by Paul Krugman today. The situation isn't just bad, it's overwhelming:

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.
I'm surprised the economist didn't mention sunk costs.

Anyway, going on:

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.
I suspect that it will have these changes imposed upon it. I would not be terribly surprised if protectionism and environmentalism come together and push through these "carbon tariffs" that Krugman was talking about.

Yes, the Chinese would be angry. But there are already questions arising about the extent to which unqualified free trade actually benefits a country or its people, and it may be the only way to provoke real climate change action in China- which will be necessary if "green jobs" are going to be sustainable in the west.

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