China's sneak preview on carbon emissions cuts

While the G-8 sets vague goals on global warming, Beijing clears its polluted skies – by fiat.

The world's rich nations agreed on a "vision" Tuesday to cut carbon emissions by half within 42 years. But half of what? Some cite 1990 as the start year. Others say from now. Either way, the world need not wait to see the kind of dramatic change that a sky-cleaning vision can bring. An example started this week.

China is shutting down hundreds of manufacturers 70 miles around Beijing, the site of the Olympics that begin Aug. 8. Tens of thousands of workers are being idled and profits forgone to temporarily clear the air and ensure a breathable contest for the world's top athletes.

All sorts of businesses that burn oil or coal, from steel mills to cement factories, are being ordered to suspend operations for up to two months. In addition, vehicles in Beijing will face alternate-day driving restrictions.

And if the winds cooperate, the remaining pollution that regularly hangs over northern China will blow off. Then, the assembled masses at the Games can experience a brief moment in history in which political will has been mustered to reverse pollutants – mainly greenhouse gases.

China's motive, of course, isn't to curb global warming. It is to make sure athletes don't skip the Games (as a few are) for fear of the air. China also wants to create a good impression. These Olympics are its "coming-out party" as a global power. But how can it shut down a major portion of its economy for such a national goal?

It is often said that dictators rule while democracies govern. Not only is the world seeing an example in China of the massive effort needed to alter the climate but one draconian way to do it – by fiat.

No wonder, then, that the democracies at this week's G-8 summit in Japan were conflicted in setting a goal to reduce emissions in their own economies. They couldn't agree on a target for 2020 but did set a vague one for 2050. That at least may push along talks aimed at forging a new global-warming treaty to replace the weak Kyoto pact.

The difficulties of imposing climate-change burdens in a democracy were on display last month in the US Senate. Debate over a bill that would reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent collapsed as lawmakers, already hearing an earful about $4-a-gallon gasoline, feared the resulting higher energy prices and closure of many industries.

Climate change may itself impose greater burdens than those steps needed to curb it. But such sacrificing foresight is missing in many countries. Many developing countries now see global warming's potential effects on them, such as glacier melt in the Himalayas. Before this G-8 summit, China and India laid out ambitious goals for pollution controls and renewable energies – but have also demanded money and patents from wealthy nations to install clean-burning technologies.

In China, which has become the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, President Hu Jintao told the Politburo in June: "How we cope with climate change is related to the country's economic development and people's practical benefits."

In coming days, the Chinese will see the benefit of healthy skies – briefly. Will they, and the whole world, come to accept the sacrifice needed to alter the climate's future before it alters them?

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