China confronts global warming dilemma
China, the world leader in both economic growth and carbon emissions, faces the dilemma of how to respond to the challenges of global warming while not harming its robust economy.
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Because of the country’s size and influence, China’s environmental concerns are no longer simply its own. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. In 2006, China emitted approximately 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, approximately one-fifth of the world’s total.Skip to next paragraph
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And while China’s per capita emissions are currently very low (about one-fifth that of the US), they are expected to rise significantly as an estimated 350 million people move from the countryside to the cities over the next 20 years. The Chinese Academy of Sciences predicts that during that time, the country’s CO2 emissions may double or more unless dramatic measures are taken.
Who should pay?
Faced with such prospects — as well as a glaring international spotlight before the Copenhagen climate conference in December — the Chinese government has in recent months devoted both more rhetoric and real attention to the challenges of combating climate change.
While Beijing hopes for a global reputation boost by highlighting some green measures already undertaken, the scope of its international commitments will be motivated chiefly by domestic concerns — by the tug-of-war between political priorities and interests, a struggle often overlooked by those who see China only as an efficient top-down monolith.
As in the United States and elsewhere, business interests vie for influence, but the dynamics of the conversation are particular to China, where industry is composed of a unique mix of state-owned enterprises, foreign joint-ventures, and private companies, all with different priorities and levers for reaching government officials.
Unlike in the United States and Western Europe, where arguments between activists and climate skeptics have long defined climate discussions, there has never been much public dispute about the merits of global warming science in China.
The official 2008 government white paper, China's Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, states without reservation: “The rise of global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is mainly caused by the increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, chiefly consisting of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, emitted as a result of human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes of land use.”
Rather, the debate over climate change in China has been focused on who should take responsibility for it and who should pay for the measures to remedy it. Looming over all is the question of to what extent measures to curb CO2 emissions and the use of coal could impede the country’s economic growth — impediments Beijing has indicated it will not accept.
The Chinese government insists that Western countries, which have contributed the bulk of cumulative carbon emissions over time, bear the primary responsibility.