The Nation: China: A Kingdom Of Bicycles No Longer

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Bicylists riding through smog in Beijing i i

Chinese cyclists ride past heavy traffic on a foggy day in Beijing, China, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007. Once the kingdom of bicycles, China is rapidly ditching the manual workhorse for high powered automobiles which are adding to the urban pollution. Ng Han Guan/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ng Han Guan/AP
Bicylists riding through smog in Beijing

Chinese cyclists ride past heavy traffic on a foggy day in Beijing, China, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007. Once the kingdom of bicycles, China is rapidly ditching the manual workhorse for high powered automobiles which are adding to the urban pollution.

Ng Han Guan/AP

Ambassador Yu Qingtai is China's point man on global warming. As special representative to the climate change talks for China's ministry of foreign affairs, Yu is a forceful advocate for China's view that while his country will do its part, the primary responsibility for fixing the problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the United States and other industrialized countries. And he bristles when reminded that many US experts put on the onus on China's rapidly growing economy and industrial might.

"There were those who came to China years ago and described us as a kingdom of bicycles," he says, when I mention some of that criticism. We're sitting in a conference room at the foreign ministry, where Yu has come to be questioned by a small group of journalists invited to Beijing by the Chinese People's Institute for Foreign Affairs. As China modernizes, he says, every Chinese citizen has the right to all of the modern industrial and transportation options enjoyed by, say, Americans – including the right to own a car. "We should not be expected to stay forever as a kingdom of bicycles!" he says.

He has a point.

"The environmental problems we face today are not the making of China and India," he says. The accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere has been growing for the past two centuries, during which Europe and the United States emerged as industrial powers. "Eighty percent of the gases in the atmosphere are the result of emissions by the developed countries, and on a per capita basis it is even more," he says. That's a view that has been widely accepted during worldwide climate-change talks through the United Nations and elsewhere, resulting in an international convention that calls upon the developed countries to take major steps to reduce carbon emissions while providing financial assistance and technology to less developed countries such as China and India. So far, however, no accord has been struck, and it isn't likely that a breakthrough will occur next month at the Copenhagen summit, either. The fund set up to provide financial aid to the Third World on climate change is virtually empty. How much is in it? I asked Yu. "Nothing," he answers.

Together, China and the United States account for about 40 percent of carbon emissions, with each country contributing roughly 20 percent, or one-fifth, of worldwide emissions. But on a per capita basis, the United States emits five times as much as China does. Yet that disparity doesn't prevent some analysts, such as Elizabeth Economy of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, a recognized expert on China and the environment, from suggesting that in the future China will have to bear most of the burden to reduce emissions. Last June, in congressional testimony, Economy said:

"The International Energy Agency estimates that China's energy-related CO2 emissions will be twice that of the United States by 2030 … China is on track to overwhelm the global effort to address climate change.

"The United States and the world need China to do more than any other country in terms of deviating from business as usual. This will not be cheap."

Economy admits that it's impossible, practically speaking, to require China (and India) to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions as dramatically as the United States and Europe must do. In fact, China is doing a lot – perhaps, in part, because it doesn't have to push legislation through a recalcitrant, filibuster-ridden. Quite apart from the international talks, China is taking steps of its own to reduce its emissions. From 2000 through 2008, China installed an enormous number of non-coal-burning power plants, increasing its wind energy capacity thirtyfold, doubling its hydroelectric capacity, and increasing its nuclear power generating capacity more than fourfold. China has planted billions of trees, raising the percent of its forested land from 12 percent to 18 percent of China's territory. They've set a series of ambitious goals for 2010, 2015 and 2020 for increasing energy efficiency, phasing out old and inefficient iron, steel and cement plants, eliminating subsidies to high-energy businesses, and investing heavily in hybrid cars, efficient lighting, and more.

Still, China gets about 70 percent of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, the chief culprits in CO2 emissions, and it's building more coal plants quickly. (Over the past 5 years, China has built more new coal plants than the entire existing, installed capacity of coal plants in the United States.)

But as Ambassador Yu points out, the West cannot expect China not to increase both its energy production and, thus, its emissions, as its economy (currently growing at roughly 8 percent per year, despite the after-effects of the financial crisis worldwide) skyrockets. "China currently is responsible for 20 percent of carbon emissions as the United States, on a per capita basis. Suppose we grow our economy by 100 percent. We'll still be at only 40 percent of the US level," he says. "You can't expect China to accept the idea that each Chinese citizen has only 20 percent of the right of an American."

Yu says that China has accepted that climate change is a serious challenge, posing grave threats to low-lying and coastal areas in China and threatening to decimate food production in agricultural areas.

Despite the measures being taken by China, however, the Chinese government is unlikely to put the brakes on development in order to reduce carbon emissions. While some environment-focused Chinese agencies are accelerating their efforts to deal with the problem, they often meet resistance from ministries responsible for commerce, industrial development, and trade. Some in China see Western demands that China reduce emissions as an under-handed way by the United States and its allies to weaken the Chinese economy. A January 2009 report from the Brookings Institution noted a Chinese perception in some quarters that the United States is using talk about climate change and clean energy "as a way to put obstacles in the path of China's rise."

Yet, across China, there are more and more signs that China is taking the problem seriously, right down to the solar-powered traffic signals that dot intersections. Driven in part by its realization that China's international standing can be affected if it ignores the problem, and in part by the fact that greater energy efficiency can reduce China's strategic dependence on expensive imports of oil and natural gas, China is investing billions of dollars in green technology, research, and high-tech solutions.

Meanwhile, the Copenhagen summit is drawing near, and Ambassador Yu says that he is "cautiously optimistic." The reason, he says: "It's too important to fail."

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