Emissions in China, other developing countries, soon to surpass U.S.

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Reuters photo by Claro Cortes
A worker pushes a cart near a power plant’s cooling tower and smoke stacks on the outskirts of Beijing Feb. 1, 2007. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a long-awaited report assessing the human link to pollution, global warming and climate change in Paris on Feb. 2. A draft of the report projects a big rise in temperatures this century and warns of more heatwaves, floods, droughts and rising sea levels linked to greenhouse gases released mainly by the use of fossil fuels.

Environmental concerns may take back seat to development


It could be the scene of a science-fiction blockbuster. Humans live in a warmer, wetter world where life is unlike anything we’ve ever known. There are raging hurricanes and severe droughts, rising sea levels, species facing mass extinction and rampant disease across the globe.

Many scientists say such a future may be closer than we would like to think, unless nations take action to reduce global warming. But who’s responsible and for how much?

The United States leads the world in carbon emissions, but a November International Energy Agency report said that by 2009, China will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest carbon emitter. Emissions in other fast-growing developing economies such as India and Brazil are also on the rise.

As Congress discusses strategies to reduce U.S. carbon emissions, some environmental and business leaders say developing countries also have a role to play in curbing their growing contribution to the climate change problem.

“We all have a common responsibility to address this issue because we’re all causing it at some level, but the response needs to be different,” said Jason Schmidt, international program manager for the Center for Clean Air Policy, an environmental think tank.

Schmidt added that the charge from developing countries is that “you guys in the developed world have been messing up the climate system since the industrial revolution…You built your economic growth on causing climate impact. Developing economies have been doing so only for the past 20 years.”

Voluntary or mandatory?

Although the science of climate change is still disputed, most experts agree that the earth is warming up, and humans should take steps to reduce carbon dioxide pollution — a likely contributor to rising temperatures.

The U.S. climate change debate centers on a basic disagreement between two camps. The Bush administration and others support the current voluntary, technology-based approach in which emitters are asked to reduce pollution with the help of tax incentives to invest in cleaner technologies.

But environmental groups and many leading Democrats in Congress want to put a price-tag on carbon emissions through either a mandatory cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, which they say would drive a technology boom and build a clean energy infrastructure for long-term emissions reductions.

“This is really the fundamental divide: whether in the U.S. you can continue to emit greenhouse gas emissions for free, or whether there will be a price involved in doing so,” said Paul Bledsoe, spokesman for the non-partisan National Commission on Energy Policy and a former aide to the Clinton Administration’s climate change task force. “Unless you put a price involved … there’s no cost incentive for the private sector to reduce emissions.”

Low-hanging fruit

Those who oppose such a mandatory system say it overlooks high-polluting, emerging economies in the developing world. Frank Maisano, an energy industry spokesman from the lobbying firm Bracewell and Giuliani, said the United States should be helping countries like India and China to “grow smart.” He said this is a more immediate and attainable goal than the politically controversial plan to set a mandatory cap on U.S. carbon emissions.

“The emerging countries are the low-hanging fruit. If we don’t do something to get them on board, we will have a huge problem that will be uncorrectable,” he said.

Polluters on the rise

Coal-fired power plants are the biggest polluters and the chief sources of energy production in the world. Researchers are working to develop new technologies that would clean up emissions from these plants, but most new equipment is still too expensive to be used on a broad scale.

According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a research and advocacy group, 75 percent of China’s electricity comes from coal-fired thermal power plants. China builds, on average, one coal facility per week, according to Schmidt.

He said it costs 20 percent to 30 percent more to build a clean coal plant than a traditional high-carbon-emitting plant. He said the Chinese choose the less expensive plants because economic growth trumps environmental concerns.

“The problem there is that the developing nations are focused on developing,” Bledsoe said. “They are poor nations who are trying to get their populace into middle class life. The trick is to find a way to bring the major developing countries like China and India into a long-term emissions reduction.”

A voluntary partnership

The Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate could make progress toward that end. The U.S.-led group, formed in July 2005, includes government and industry leaders from Australia, China, India, Japan and South Korea — nations that together make up more than half of the world’s economy, energy use, and population.

The partnership announced plans in October to tackle the economic and technological barriers faced by countries that want to clean up their power generation, coal mining, steel production and other industries. Partnership task forces are working to identify ways to promote investment in environmentally-friendly technologies that will foster sustainable growth.

Some developing countries such as China and Brazil have already taken steps to reduce emissions and implement fuel efficiency standards, but not primarily for environmental reasons. A Center for Clean Air Policy report released in November highlighted cases in which developing countries chose to up their environmental standards in order to secure economic sustainability.

“It’s a little trickier in developing countries,” said Schmidt, who worked on the report. “The environmental drum beat isn’t quite as solid…They have many priorities; climate change is just one of them…Chipping away and making progress on the things they can do as part of their other priorities is a good first step.”

Mandatory system: Pain or gain?

These emissions-reduction efforts remain entirely voluntary, and some experts say that makes them insufficient to win the war on climate change. They say the United States needs to be more aggressive and place a mandatory cap on its own carbon output before it can ask any other country to do so.

“Our median income is 40 times that of the Chinese,” Bledsoe said. “They’re incredulous when we try to encourage them to do this. Once we take action ourselves, we’ll be in a much better political and moral position to force the majority of developing countries to limit their own emissions.”

However, some experts argue that mandatory carbon limits could have a devastating effect on the U.S. economy and economies around the world. In order to meet new emissions standards, they say energy companies would be forced to make expensive changes to their facilities which would drive up the price of energy for consumers.

“In a world that’s energy poor, making energy less affordable will have terrific consequences,” said Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

“Our argument is that there are consequences of rushing to impose a cost on the current generation with no real value for the future,” he said. “A diet that is all pain and no gain is not a diet that most people think we should be rushing into.”

Paying for pollution

Any effort to curb global climate change will be costly. A highly-publicized British report authored by economist Sir Nicholas Stern and released in October estimated that global warming mitigation efforts, if begun immediately, would cost about one percent of the global gross domestic product annually.

Joanna Lewis, senior international fellow at the Pew Center, said in an e-mail that she doubts China, India or other developing countries will take on mandatory emissions targets in the near future.

The way to get them on board, Bledsoe said, is to lead the way.

“It’s the cart before the horse if we try to do it internationally first before getting our own act together,” he said. “It’s time we developed our own system that, in time, we can bring to the international community.”

Read more about global warming in the United States: Climate change debate heats up in the courts.

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