Can an Unfree China Be Green?
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
President Obama has chosen to downplay the lack of freedom in China. By doing so, he gives up on a vital prerequisite for an effective, credible emission-control regime.
If the UN climate conference in Copenhagen produces a deal, China, not the United States, will largely shape its terms. China is the biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and it is the fastest-growing source. To be successful, a global GHG control regime simply has to curb Chinese emissions.
Going into the talks, China has offered to lower the average volume of greenhouse gas that it emits to produce each dollar of economic output. However, China’s economy is still growing rapidly; hence, its emissions will continue to rise even as its GHG intensity falls. Further, as Chinese industry modernizes, it will burn less fuel (and emit less) per dollar of output. Predictably, then, International Energy Agency figures show that China’s promised decline in GHG intensity would happen were the Copenhagen conference never to take place.
China’s inaction fits a larger pattern. Controls have taken hold in Western Europe and in the parts of the United States that most resemble Western Europe. Other countries such as Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia continue to flirt with the concept. All these countries have two things in common.
Until a strong green movement arises in China, GHG control there will be a sham.
First, they have been affluent for several generations. Partly as a result of this, they have woven elaborate social safety nets. Over time, these factors have fostered a sense of economic security. This sense of security, notes sociologist Ronald Inglehart, leads to the rise of “post-materialist” values. In these societies, many people prefer environmental values over economic growth. Strong green movements flourish in such settings, and, in fact, all of the states that appear to be moving toward GHG controls have such movements.
Second, states receptive to GHG controls are structured so that their citizens can organize for political action and their governments must heed grassroots pressure. For the most part, only democracies achieve the wealth needed for the rise of post-materialist values. Further, without democracy, green values, even should they somehow emerge, could find no political voice.
China does not meet either of these conditions. Its wealth is growing, but is very new, and much of the population remains poor. Its social safety net is sieve-like. Access to political organization is strictly circumscribed, as are speech and press rights. Courts are subject to political manipulation.
While an unfree China cannot be green, even a free China may take a long time to become green enough to choose to pay for GHG control.
It seems clear that the Chinese Communist Party could not maintain its grip on power if it renounced the use of repression. Why else would it maintain a costly and much criticized machine to watch, muzzle, and intimidate its subjects?
In theory, pressure from abroad might persuade China to control its emissions. In practice, external forces alone cannot succeed. China is too strong to be coerced, and its economy is too big and too polluting for other powers to find it worthwhile to pay the huge costs of cleaning it up.
Further, because China is unfree, its government’s claims about its emissions lack credibility. To cite a revealing case, China has imprisoned without trial and tortured American geologist Dr. Xue Feng. According to the Associated Press, he is “charged with stealing state secrets over the purchase of a commercial database on the oil industry.” No other nation can trust China’s word about its emissions while its society remains so closed that such databases are state secrets; and, without trust, international cooperation will be very limited.
For the most part, only democracies achieve the wealth needed for the rise of post-materialist values.
Until a strong green movement arises in China, GHG control there will be a sham. Today, the often energy-intensive, state-owned enterprises benefit from crony capitalism. A green movement might eventually prevail against this system. It will never do so, though, until China’s government is based on popular sovereignty, and such a government would mean the end of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power.
President Obama has deliberately chosen to downplay the lack of freedom in China. By doing so, he is, in fact, giving up on a vital prerequisite for an effective, credible emission-control regime. To be sure, while an unfree China cannot be green, even a free China may take a long time to become green enough to choose to pay for GHG control. The likely time lag should not disguise the strength of the bond.
To this link, Obama seems oblivious. Instead, he appears to hope that the United States, merely by adopting its own greenhouse gas limits, can call forth an effective global system of controls. Before taking office, the president spoke of the need for a more realistic sense of the limits on America’s power. He would do well to apply this notion to his own climate diplomacy.
Lee Lane is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
FURTHER READING: Lane recently testified before Congress on energy independence and climate change. In “If Only It Were a Tax,” he explained the main problem with greenhouse gas legislation. Last week, he and David Montgomery published “Organized Hypocrisy as a Tool of Climate Diplomacy,” examining the past 20 years of greenhouse-gas discussions worldwide.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.