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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Fueling the future
In another sector critical to climate outcomes — transportation — the industry profile is quite different. Now the world’s top auto market, China has an estimated 65 million vehicles on the road, and experts predict [pdf] it will have 300 million by 2030.
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But unlike the power sector, the transportation industry is not dominated by state-owned enterprises. Rather, it is characterized by joint ventures between Chinese firms and prominent US, European, Japanese, and Korean automakers, including General Motors and BMW.
Representatives from these companies are often asked for their input on draft regulations. For example, a transportation research group which develops energy and environmental policies for the Chinese government in 2008 invited comment from several foreign and domestic firms as it considered future fuel efficiency recommendations.
According to a state employee present at one of those meetings, one American company used the opportunity to oppose stricter fuel economy standards. (China's current fuel economy standards are not as stringent as those in the European Union or Japan, but are tougher than those in Australia, Canada, and the United States.).
On the other hand, the employee said he believed that foreign companies had played a progressive role in helping China adopt relatively stringent tailpipe emissions standards. Most international automakers are already producing vehicles with very low tailpipe emissions for markets like California, which has among the strictest emission standards in the world. Because the technologies are already developed, these automakers can introduce them into the Chinese market relatively quickly and easily through joint ventures with domestic Chinese companies.
“If you would like to be part of it [input on regulations and green energy], you can be,” says Norbert Reithofer, chairman and CEO of BMW Group, which operates a joint venture with the Chinese automotive firm Brilliance. “China is very open. But it is up to you ... If you have the right technology, you will find a partner.”
As for China’s historic system of state-owned enterprises, it is in many ways useful for mobilizing industry around national goals. But it also presents certain contradictions, because it enshrines established interests.
For China, envisioning the future and building from scratch — from new wind farms to megacities to future green industries — is always easier than retrofitting its past. Yet to solve its looming environmental challenges, which are now no longer its own, will require China’s leadership to find a way to do both.
Christina Larson is an associate of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who focuses on international environmental issues and China. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, China Environment Series, Foreign Policy, and The Washington Monthly, where she is a contributing editor.
Editor's note: Also on this topic, see the Monitor article "China's green leap forward."
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