China could lead the fight for a cooler climate

China may have become the default excuse for inaction by western politicians and idle citizens, says Jonathon Porritt, but its contradictions may even now help it lead in fighting climate change.

If nothing else, as we move into the final months of the Bush Administration, one has to admit that he has got a good sense of humour. After nearly seven years of applied process-wrecking intransigence on climate change (as dummy to Dick Cheney’s virtuoso ventriloquism), US president George W. Bush has now offered himself to the world as the only global leader who can rescue us from climate meltdown. Both Al Gore and Bill Clinton (whose Climate Change Initiative is beginning to get some real traction, especially with city mayors around the world) must be quaking in their boots at the prospects of “Bring-it-on-Bush” challenging them for star billing in the climate change leadership stakes.

To be fair, it is more or less consistent with what he was saying when he was still in complete denial on climate change and its potential impacts. What was deemed sacrosanct even then is the American way of life and the US role in the global economy. Nothing – not even a potential 3 degree Celsius average temperature increase by the end of the century – must be allowed to jeopardise that over-arching imperative.

So what he is now offering by way of climate change leadership is to act as an advocate for “mega-fixes”: geo-engineering on a global scale to ensure we avoid climate-induced catastrophe without having to change our current behaviour in any one single particular.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are already being invested in such mega-fixes. Some favour messing around in space, positioning vast parabolic mirrors in outer space to reflect back large amounts of incoming solar radiation. Others are fixated on imitating the effects of volcanic eruptions by using vast numbers of high-altitude aircraft to put sunlight-reflecting sulphuric acid droplets into the atmosphere.

A rival camp wants to fix the oceans by dumping vast amounts of iron particles into the water to stimulate blooms of plankton which will then suck the carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere before sinking down to the ocean floor to form the next aeon’s equivalent to the White Cliffs of Dover. Others just want to use bog-standard fertiliser to achieve the same effect. And no less a guru than Gaia theorist James Lovelock has weighed in with a scheme of his own, involving tens of thousands of vast pipes to bring cold water up to the surface of the ocean to speed the absorption of CO2.

Lovelock is right on one thing: if we continue to defer serious measures to address climate change (basically energy efficiency, renewables and carbon capture and storage), then we will get to that point where the only way of avoiding apocalypse – the complete disintegration of human civilisation – will be to try and mega-fix our way out of it at the very last moment: a small probability of success, inconceivably massive costs, but giving the boys with their toys their final day (literally) in the sun.

Counter-intuitively, I am much more interested in the possibility of global leadership coming not from the US but from China. At one level this is, of course, insane. Within the next few months, China will overtake the US as the world’s largest emitter of CO2.As the entire world and its dog now know, China is building one new coal-powered station a week. China is building more than 20 spanking-new international airports. China is as immodestly in love with the motorcar as are the Americans. And China’s environment is quite literally falling to pieces.

All of which means that China has become the default excuse for every procrastinating politician and idle, indifferent citizen who was never going to do anything anyway. “What’s the point, mate, with China building one new power station every minute?” Or words to that effect.

I have yet to hear a single politician mention that China is closing down more power stations than it is building, already has enormous amounts of wind power available to it, has the most aggressive expansion programme for renewable sources of energy of any country in the world, has set some extremely tough targets for improving both energy efficiency and water efficiency, and is just about the only country in the world to have done any serious legwork on introducing a better way of measuring GDP to take proper account of environmental and climate costs.

And there is much more in that particular pipeline too. Unlike our politicians (let alone our citizenry), who really don’t understand the immediacy and the seriousness of the impacts of climate change, China’s politicians absolutely get it. They are already experiencing those impacts, directly and very painfully, in terms of accelerating desertification, reductions in agricultural yields, saline incursion into key groundwater aquifers near the coast, changing patterns of precipitation, increased incidence of storms and droughts. As Dong Weng Jie, director general of the Beijing Climate Centre puts it: “Records for worst-in-a-century rainstorms, droughts and heat waves are being broken more and more often.”

A lot of this already translates into real economic costs – lost agricultural productivity, increased costs in pumping water, horrific health costs with tens of millions of people profoundly affected by both water and air pollution. Worse yet, from the perspective of the Chinese government, a lot of that pain translates straight through into rapidly rising levels of social dissent, with a significant proportion of the wave of mass disturbances in China today (more than 80,000 in 2005 according to China’s own Ministry of Public Security) attributable to protests over water, land and pollution. President Hu Jintao had another crack at the sustainability challenge in his opening address to the Communist Party Congress on October 15.

If “unsustainable” means anything, what is happening in China is just that. But unlike our leaders, China’s leaders know it. The fact that their sustainability problems go on getting worse doesn’t mean they are in denial. It’s just that the solutions can be costly, and need driving down through the party and political bureaucracies with infinitely greater purpose than is currently the case, especially as they haven’t yet managed to explain to their citizens that business-as-usual (as in 1,100 new cars on the roads of Beijing every day) just isn’t going to work. But who has?

What people forget is that China has already started to invest huge amounts of money in a whole host of clean-tech innovations – in wind, solar and hydrogen in particular. This may take a while to work its way through the system, but China has an eye as much on future export markets as on sorting out its own domestic problems. Many now believe that some of the most exciting potential breakthroughs on photovoltaics and hydrogen-powered vehicles will be coming out of China any time soon – and not out of the US.

And when you are training around 400,000 new undergraduates in engineering every year, compared to the US figure of 70,000, there is clearly going to be some kind of macro-economic strategy in place to move China on from being the “industrial workshop to the world” to much higher added-value, post-industrial production breakthroughs.

Trying to read China is massively complicated at the best of times – an aggressively capitalist system within the embrace of communism is bound to throw up an unprecedented cacophony of contradictions. So it is perfectly possible for China to be both the world’s most unsustainable and environmentally devastated nation on Earth, and the nation re-inventing the cutting edge of sustainable technological breakthroughs all at the same time.

Funnily enough, one can point to almost exactly the same set of contradictions in the US. The Bush Administration, for all its other egregious failings, has been pumping in billions of tax dollars to sustainable energy and waste projects, even as it presides over an economy that has got more wasteful and more environmentally devastating to the rest of the world year after year.

Little wonder that one apparently has to be a former politician, like Gore or Clinton, to get really serious about climate change leadership.


Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future, chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission; and author of Capitalism as if the World Matters; Revised Edition 2007 (in paperback), Earthscan – available through Forum for the Future website