After highly publicized visits to China and India, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has the world thinking that the U.S. is taking the reins on addressing climate change.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
This is not to disparage the progress made in the new partnerships announced by Secretary Kerry and his counterparts in Beijing and New Delhi. If mankind is to have any chance in mitigating the effects of climate change, it needs everyone on board. But what Kerry’s speeches and op-eds have managed to do is re-create a nostalgic psychosis that the world somehow needs Washington to lead – that other nations are sitting idly by, incapable of taking on climate change.
The reality is countries have long ago realized they cannot afford to wait for Washington. And they haven’t – particularly, China.
While it is right to praise Secretary Kerry and his efforts, the world needs to come to terms with the fact that China is far ahead of the U.S. in taking action to combat climate change. Before you scoff and talk about coal plants and air pollution, consider the greener side of the fence.
This week, the government announced it will be spending $277 billion on new measures to curb air pollution.
The U.S. meanwhile continues to be mired in lawsuits trying to avoid air pollution regulation passed under the 23-year-old Clean Air Act.
Last month, China rolled out its first of seven regional emissions trading schemes meant to pave the way for a national system by as early as 2015. These seven markets – including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong – will cover up to 700 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, the combined emissions of over 200 million people. Even as a pilot program, it will immediately become the world’s second largest emission trading scheme – and may soon be the largest if the European Union doesn’t find a way to fix its own.
The U.S. has no plans for a national emissions trading system, forcing states like California to go it alone.
This year, China has set a target of installing 49GW of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power – a massive number. Spurring on its world-leading cleantech industry, the government has repeatedly bumped up targets. China is now aiming for 35GW of installed solar and 140GW of installed wind capacity in the next two years.
The Finance Ministry has expanded its national resources tax to include coal, after implementing similar requirements on oil and gas production two years ago. And just last week, Finance Minister Lou Jiwei confirmed a carbon tax is in the works.
A carbon tax in the U.S.? Tough sell.
China is pushing ahead with strict energy efficiency regulations on its top 10,000 energy-consuming national companies, all mandated under the 12th Five Year Plan. This is meant to help the reach the plan’s stated 16% reduction in energy intensity by 2015.
Regulating corporations in the U.S.? Not a great track record.
Hitting China’s intensity target is going to require massive capital expenditure, and China is putting its money where its mouth is. Last year, investment in clean energy projects hit $65.1 billion—a 20% increase over 2011.
That was than double that of the U.S., which tallied the second highest total after briefly surpassing China in 2011.
This isn’t to say China doesn’t face a number of environmental challenges. Overcapacity in solar photovoltaic manufacturing, problems with grid connectivity, problems with corruption, and problems with monitoring, reporting, and verifying emissions are just a start.
Chinese politicians, business leaders, scientists, and engineers have their work cut out for them. But it’s time for the rest of us to do away with the fallacy that China has been waiting for the U.S. to take action, or that a handful of recent events have suddenly woken politicians up to some hitherto-unknown climate catastrophe.
So, we can praise Kerry for his efforts to build new partnerships on climate. But before we ask what more China and India can do, the question may be better addressed to the Secretary and his colleagues back home.