China's pollution nightmare is now everyone's pollution nightmare
The environmental disaster springs largely from its emulation of the American way of life – so let's set a better example.
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Nevertheless, China has maintained that the developed countries bear primary responsibility for global warming and must be the first to counter it. The argument has some merit: After all, the US alone is responsible for a quarter of the man-made greenhouse gases pumped into the earth's atmosphere over time, while China's cumulative contribution is still less than a third as much. And even today, China's per capita carbon-dioxide emissions are less than a fifth of America's. Yet China's refusal to curb emissions soon could single-handedly wipe out reductions made elsewhere, crippling the international effort.Skip to next paragraph
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All this is common knowledge among those who follow Chinese environmental trends. Still, the news has not shaken China out of its money-induced euphoria. One likely reason is that China's growth rate takes no account of the environmental devastation the boom has caused. In 2006, an official at China's State Council said environmental damage (everything from crop loss to the price of healthcare) cost 10 percent of its gross domestic product – all of the economy's celebrated growth. Vaclav Smil, a highly respected China scholar at the University of Manitoba, pegs both the environmental-damage rate and the growth rate closer to 7 percent, "so basically every year environmental damage wipes out the GDP growth," Mr. Smil says.
Who's to blame
Of course, what the Chinese are chiefly guilty of is emulating the American economic model. Since the 1980s, Chinese policymakers have gone on foreign-study missions to figure out how developed countries fostered economic growth. As Doug Ogden, former director of the Energy Foundation's China Sustainable Energy Program, puts it, "It's not surprising that the lessons the Chinese drew from their international experiences are often based on sprawl development, private automobile ownership, and highly energy-consumptive practices," since the economies they studied all possess those.
One of the Chinese officials' most fateful choices was to promote the automobile industry as a pillar of China's economy. The decision must have seemed obvious. After all, cars are the foundations of the American, Japanese, and South Korean economies, generating economic activity.
Now China's car industry is the world's third largest, but many of its cities are paralyzed by traffic, the inhabitants are choking on the fumes, and China's foreign policy increasingly revolves around courting outcast nations such as Sudan to obtain oil at premium prices. From an international perspective, the potential impact on climate change is worst of all. Motor vehicles now account for no more than 3 or 4 percent of China's greenhouse-gas emissions, but the industry is still nascent. According to one projection, the number of cars on Chinese roads will grow from 33 million to 130 million during the next 12 years.
The United States passed up the opportunity it had at the beginning of China's economic transformation to guide it toward sustainability, and the loss is already incalculable. But what is left is the one option that would have served Americans (and the world) best all along, which is to model environmental sanity.
Stop buying products made from illegally cut wood. Stop building coal-fired power plants. Instead of subsidizing oil companies, promote sustainable-energy technologies. Build effective mass-transit systems in every city. Make drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Such acts would not just revive our capacity for moral suasion; given the breadth of the world's environmental crisis, they are prerequisites for self-preservation.
• Jacques Leslie is an environmental writer and the author of "Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment." This piece was adapted from one published in Mother Jones magazine.