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The hothouse of US-China relations

Orville SchellOrville Schell is a renowned expert on China and Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.

by Orville Schell

As Hu Jintao, China’s Communist Party Secretary General and President, prepares to visit the US on April 20, myriad unresolved issues are disturbing Sino-US relations. Debates rage over the bilateral trade balance and revaluation of the renminbi, the status of Taiwan and Tibet, human rights violations, and intellectual property theft. China’s role in restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its tense relations with Japan are an additional burden on ties. There is even disagreement about whether Hu’s trip to Washington is an official “state visit.”

These issues will dominate the headlines, but they pale in comparison to another problem that is on neither side’s agenda: global warming. That is a pity, because as British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently observed, over the long term, “there is no issue more important than climate change,” and there can be no agreement to reduce it “that doesn’t involve China, America and India.”

Moreover, climate change is no longer such a long-term problem, and only the lunatic fringe remains in doubt about whether the escalating use of carbon-based fuels is responsible for global warming. Indeed, recent assessments by the British Antarctic Survey suggest that temperatures over the Antarctic have increased 3.6 degrees since the early 1970’s, and that warming is taking place far faster than researchers had hitherto believed. Similarly, the journal Science reports that new studies show that ocean levels may rise much more rapidly and precipitously than anticipated.

Although the US and China are the world’s two primary producers of greenhouse gases – the US being the largest – neither has signed the Kyoto Protocol, which commits countries to cut carbon emissions 5% below 1990 levels by 2008-12. With China and the US out of the picture, the problem will likely get far worse before it gets better.

The increasing climate-change danger is mainly due to developments in China. The country derives almost 76% of its energy needs from coal, burning almost 2.2 billion tons of it in 2005, with consumption set to rise to 2.6 billion tons by 2010. Moreover, car production soared from only 640,000 in 2000 to 3.1 million by 2005, and annual growth is expected to continue rising by 80%. Petroleum independent until 1993, China now consumes more and more imported petroleum every year, and power consumption is predicted to double by 2025, requiring an average of one new coal-fired plant to come on line each week.

Small wonder, then, that the water in 75% of China’s rivers is undrinkable, that the country is home to seven of the world’s most polluted cities, and that one can often live in Beijing or Shanghai for weeks without ever seeing the sun. Indeed, China is on the precipice of becoming an environmental wasteland.

Unlike George W Bush’s administration, which remains cavalier in its disregard for the warning signs of climate danger both at home and globally, Hu Jintao’s leadership has begun to evince a hopeful assertiveness, at least in domestic environmental policy. There is a paradox here: while China’s central government is trying to provide national environmental leadership, local governments have often resisted. In the US, it is the federal government that has been weak – even retrograde – in providing environmental leadership, while states such as California have led the way with higher standards.

While US Vice President Dick Cheney denigrates the idea of energy conservation, China’s leaders have adopted a new five-year plan that commits the country to cut energy use by one-fifth, industrial pollution by one-tenth, and industrial water consumption by one-third. A 12% tax increase has been imposed on gas-guzzling cars, along with reductions for cars with small-engines, and a new 5% tax is being levied on wooden flooring and even chopsticks, which are estimated to use two million cubic meters of timber each year.

Nevertheless, because both Hu and Bush fear the economic effects of reducing their country’s carbon emissions, each has hidden behind the non-participation of the other to justify absence from international efforts and failure to assume a global leadership role. Having awakened to the environmental threat, the next challenge for Hu is to begin translating some of China’s new awareness and boldness into its foreign policy – exactly what the US has failed to do.

It would be a pity if China, the new industrial hub of the world, overlooked the benefits of capitalising economically on the multinational effort to control carbon emissions that is inevitable if the global environment is to remain hospitable. Indeed, any national leadership that anticipates the new research, development, manufacturing, and trade possibilities that will grow out of this new imperative may find itself positioned for exactly the kind of sustained economic growth that every country seeks.

If the US and China were to team up to address the challenge of climate change, the results might not only be a more congenial climate and a better Sino-US relationship, but also new and vibrant economic sectors in both countries. If climate change were on the agenda for Hu’s upcoming trip, the meeting, whether or not it is designated a “state visit,” could be one of historic consequence.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.


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The Chinese Curse

"May you live interesting times" is an apt Chinese curse. The next 100 years will see a global shift in power from West to East and with it the responsibility for leading the world.

At this stage, I would believe that Chinese world leadership would be more enlightened ecologically than the US only because the scale of ecological problems are far more massive already in China.

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