Both the US and China – the largest emitters of greenhouse gases – have a goal to make sure those emissions grow more slowly than their economies. Yet both are barely making progress. Of the two, China now seems to want to act more boldly.
On Monday, its prime minister, Wen Jiabao, admitted that China was failing badly to meet a 2010 goal of reducing by 20 percent the amount of energy it takes to generate each dollar of national income. He also said the country missed a goal to reduce pollution discharge.
Not only are such official admissions rare in China, but Mr. Wen also promised the Communist Party-controlled legislature that the government would "resolutely close down" the "backward" steel and iron foundries that burn coal as well as shutter the most inefficient power plants. He declared that China must "bring pollution under control" and reduce energy consumption because such goals are the "main fulcrum for changing the pattern of economic growth."
That's quite a shift from simply encouraging gung-ho economic growth. It's a recognition that pollution, along with global warming, will probably harm China's future, and perhaps even set back the party's primary aim: Raise per capita income, especially in rural areas.
Much of China's worst pollution comes from a surge of new energy- intensive heavy industries built since 2001. Many were built by local officials eager to promote business but who also ignore Beijing's dictates.
And there are plans for at least 300 more coal-burning plants to feed China's huge energy appetite. Tailpipe emissions, too, are increasing as the number of vehicles rises about 15 percent a year. Of the world's 20 most polluted cities, 16 are in China. Air pollution floating from China is changing the weather in the Pacific.
With a shortage of arable land and water, China cannot afford to ignore warnings from climate scientists that rising temperatures will reduce water flows from snowy mountains in the west. Food security is essential to the Communist Party's hold on power.
The old Red China won't become a Green China anytime soon, though. Environmental laws are vague and enforcement is weak. Some new technologies for cleaner uses of coal are being tried. But stronger incentives are needed to overcome a desire for profits by localities.
Fortunately, the government is pushing "pollution credits" trading that can drive investment toward clean industries. And the party is allowing more freedom for environmental activists to report pollution problems and to challenge local authorities. Many Chinese are questioning whether the rush to riches is worth the price of toxic air and water. The new eco-activists could be the buds for a renewed democracy movement in China.
Both the US and China are experiencing a public awakening of concern over global warming. China's response so far is mainly top down from Beijing. In the US, much of the action remains at the grass-roots level, although a new Congress and President Bush might work together this year to boost the federal role in rolling back use of carbon energy. And both nations have increased their cooperation to find solutions.
As giant CO2 emitters, the US and China must lead the world in quickly tackling global warming.