Cutting Greenhouse Emissions May Rest with China In the United States, there is a growing consensus that carbon emissions need to be reduced, both here and abroad. But China has no plans to cap emissions. And there is a growing fear that even if the United States lowers its emissions, China's booming economy will more than make up the difference.
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Cutting Greenhouse Emissions May Rest with China

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Cutting Greenhouse Emissions May Rest with China

Cutting Greenhouse Emissions May Rest with China

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Now another in our series, Climate Connections. NPR and National Geographic are spending the next year examining how people change the world's climate and how that climate changes people. The growing consensus in the U.S. that carbon emissions need to be reduced is not shared in China. It has no plans to cap emissions. Even if the U.S. cuts its carbon output, it's possible that China, whose economy is booming, will more than make up the difference.

NPR's Adam Davidson reports on how the U.S. might use economic pressure to influence China's emissions policy.

ADAM DAVIDSON: You want to know what the future will be like? Just go to Manhattan, to the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue.

Mr. BOB FOX (Architect): That building right there will be the greenest high-rise building in the world.

DAVIDSON: Bob Fox designed the 54-story One Bryant Park building. It will be finished next year. The skeleton is already up, and on the first half of the building, the windows have been installed. They're remarkably high tech. They let in light but keep out heat, which means less need for AC and fluorescent bulbs. Most electric power plants cause carbon dioxide emissions, so less energy use means less carbon pumped into the air.

Mr. FOX: We are going to put in this building our own power plant. It will be on the seventh floor.

DAVIDSON: Where that steel girder is poking out?

Mr. FOX: Exactly.

DAVIDSON: The plant will be three times more efficient than the New York electric grid. Fox hopes that one day soon, most buildings will be as green as this one. If they are, global warming will be a smaller concern.

Except for one thing: no matter how green, high-rise buildings are still made with steel.

Mr. FOX: There are hundreds of tons of steel, thousands of tons. This is a huge building.

DAVIDSON: And factories that produce steel emit a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide. This is where the China problem comes in. China exports a lot of steel. A ton of Chinese steel causes a lot more carbon dioxide emissions than a ton made in the U.S. Many expect the U.S. to pass a law forcing U.S. manufacturers to pay some kind of tax or fee for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. That fee will make steel and pretty much everything else more expensive, but only if it's made in the U.S. If China doesn't have its own carbon fee, their cost advantage will be even greater.

Fox works on environmental issues with Dale Bryk, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council.

Ms. DALE BRYK (Attorney, National Resources Defense Council): If we design our policies poorly, we could certainly increase imports from countries that don't have any pollution controls and are going increase pollution, the net effect will be no benefit to the environment, and we're hurting our economy.

DAVIDSON: The fear is that America's buildings will be made with cheap Chinese steel made in factories that keep belching out more and more carbon dioxide. Environmentalists say there's a solution. Let's call it a carbon tariff, a way of making China and other developing countries pay for their carbon emissions by adding a carbon charge to every import that enters the U.S. And the charge won't just be for building materials like steel; it will be for everything.

At American Home Hardware just down the block, owner Felix Atlasman says he'll show me the hammers.

Mr. FELIX ATLASMAN (Owner, American Home Hardware, New York): Sure. Follow me.

DAVIDSON: So we're looking at four hammers now.

Mr. ATLASMAN: Right.

DAVIDSON: And how much are the China hammers, how much are the America hammers?

Mr. ATLASMAN: China hammers range from $9.99 to $14.99, and the Americans start from $24.99 and up.

DAVIDSON: What if U.S. manufacturers pay some sort of carbon fee, and Chinese hammer makers don't? The U.S. will have to put a carbon price onto Chinese imports at the border.

Mr. ATLASMAN: How can we charge the Chinese government for emissions that is happening in China, not in the U.S.?

DAVIDSON: Well, that's the problem. We have to figure out how to do it.

Mr. ATLASMAN: I don't think that's going to happen, though. It's going to be hard for them to enforce that type of thing.

DAVIDSON: Our storeowner is right. Calculating the carbon tariff on every Chinese good shipped to the U.S. would be difficult enough; getting China or any other country to agree that the numbers are fair may just be impossible. It's easy to think that no matter how much the U.S. reduces its carbon emissions, it won't do any good. China will keep emitting so much carbon dioxide that global warming will continue to worsen. Dale Bryk:

Ms. BRYK: People are using the idea that we're going to do something, and China's not going to do it, therefore we should do nothing. That is not a legitimate reason for not doing anything.

DAVIDSON: She says we can sort out all the problems, we can design a carbon tariff or a fee to put on every Chinese import, and that will encourage Chinese manufacturers to lower their carbon emissions. But all this is often the future a bit. Let's say that in a few years, Congress passes a law charging U.S. manufacturers a carbon tax and also comes up with a workable carbon tariff to put on Chinese goods that come to the U.S. The only thing Congress can influence is China's exports. There's just not that much America can do to force China to make its own power plants and domestic manufacturers any cleaner. It'll be up to China to decide what to do about its greenhouse gas emissions. Adam Davidson, NPR News, New York.

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