President Bush gave a major address last week in the White House Rose Garden about the need for the United States to curb its carbon emissions. The speech has been roundly derided as being “too little, too late,” and deservedly so. It is also, unfortunately, characteristic of much of the energy debate in the United States in that it failed to make a case for what must be an integral part of any successful energy and climate strategy in the 21st century: robust U.S.-Sino cooperation.
Politicians and policymakers in Washington today are caught up in a largely domestic debate over the future of U.S. energy policy. Yet U.S. energy and climate security ultimately requires winning China’s support for a new international, rules-based energy system that works for developed and developing countries alike. After all, the United States and China are the top two emitters of greenhouse gases and two of the three top oil importers. If the U.S. and China cannot work together to create a sustainable global energy environment, there is little chance of averting the ill-effects of climate change or of building more efficient and transparent international energy markets.
That is why the U.S. cannot afford to lose sight of the steps China is already taking to address its energy challenges, and in doing so allow its own domestic energy debate to take place in a vacuum.
China’s political leadership is beginning to realize the importance of cleaning up the country’s energy and environmental act for the sake of the Olympic Games, China’s economy, and, ultimately, perhaps even the Communist Party’s own survival. At the recently concluded National People’s Congress, China’s leaders took some new steps to meet the numerous environmental challenges that stem from the country’s voracious appetite for fossil fuels. One notable development was the establishment of a National Energy Commission responsible for creating, implementing, and monitoring a new national energy policy.
According to a Chinese government-run news agency, the commission’s mandate is “to strengthen the government management on the energy sector.” Set up under the auspices of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s main energy and environmental planning body, the National Energy Commission will integrate the functions of a previous government energy body and will promote nuclear energy, alternative fuels, and environmental conservation.
China’s leaders also directed the National People’s Congress to upgrade the State Environmental Protection Administration to full ministry status and rename it the Ministry of Environmental Protection. The new title and mandate for the 33-year-old agency requires it to “prevent and control environmental pollution, protect nature and ecology, supervise nuclear safety, safeguard public health and environmental safety, and promote the harmony between man and nature.” The agency issues an annual report on the state of the environment in China and is responsible for drafting all environmental laws and monitoring their implementation.
Of course, this is the same agency that under a variety of previous names failed to rein in the country’s billowing pollution. One of China’s biggest energy and environmental failures has been its inability to ensure that its national policies are properly implemented by local party officials whose primary concern is meeting immediate economic growth targets. Significantly, however, the vice-minister of the newly upgraded MEP, Pan Yue, is one of China’s most famous environmental activists. In 2005, Pan surprised the local and provincial authorities and the Chinese people when he ordered projects worth $14 billion dollars in investments shut down because they failed to file proper environmental-impact statements.
While no clear consensus appears to have emerged about how to solve China’s energy and environmental challenges, there is broad internal agreement among the political elite about the threats of failing to do so.
One threat is that environmental degradation will dampen the country’s torrid rate of economic growth, which has been the Chinese Communist Party’s primary claim to political legitimacy. In order to ensure more sustainable growth, Pan Yue, for instance, has advocated calculating China’s economic growth in terms of “Green GDP,” which, unlike traditional GDP, factors in the environmental costs associated with economic development. President Hu Jintao tried to implement Green GDP as a means of measuring environmental performance for Chinese officials. The first report released by the government said that pollution had cost China $64 billion in 2004, about 3% of its overall gross domestic product. Unfortunately, subsequent results, especially those on the local level, were so politically unacceptable that the program was dropped in 2007. In some provinces, Green GDP reflected growth rates of almost zero.
A second threat comes directly from the anti-government protests sparked by China’s failed environmental policies. One stark example: 10,000 People’s Liberation Army troops had to be deployed to a village in Zhejiang Province in 2005 when as many as 60,000 rioters swarmed chemical plants that were polluting their village. More recently, in May of 2007, up to 20,000 protestors peacefully took to the streets in Xiamen to protest the construction of a $1.4 billion petro-chemical plant near the city. The protestors took videos and posted them on YouTube, with some referencing Tiananmen Square in 1989. According to Elizabeth Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations, protests like these “represent the Chinese leadership’s greatest fear, namely, that its failure to protect the environment may someday serve as the catalyst for broad-based demands for political change.”
Moreover, as desertification exacerbated by global warming affects some 400 million people in China alone, internal migration may cause civil unrest as the resettling population competes for scarce resources with established residents in other regions.
Perhaps this is why Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao appears ready to provide political backing for these and other reforms. In 2007 at Davos, Wen stated publicly, “China is committed to saving resources and protecting the environment. We have the confidence and resolve to accomplish this arduous task through unremitting efforts. We take climate change seriously and have formulated the national program on tackling climate change.”
Creating a new Energy Commission and a more-empowered MEP are signals that China is attempting to come to terms with its intertwined energy and environmental challenges, but more reform is needed. Many analysts in the United States, as well as some in China, believe that the Energy Commission itself ought to have been upgraded to ministry status and been endowed with more power to enforce compliance at the local level.
The United States, however, must itself address the energy challenge responsibly, and by doing so it will be able to demonstrate the leadership necessary to build and bolster the international architecture that the world needs to achieve greater energy and climate security. China and the United States together can help lead the world toward more sustainable energy policies that promote global economic growth and combat global warming, but they will never make significant progress toward their goal until they are willing and able to work closely with one another on these issues.
Peter Ogden is a Senior Policy Analyst for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. Matthew Rogier is a researcher at the Center.