Beijing’s leadership is getting tough on environmental issues. Last week, President Xi Jinping vowed to hold officials who harm the environment “accountable for a lifetime.” And top officials have proposed a cap on carbon emissions for China’s next five-year plan, starting in 2016. That news has greens in a tizzy, and has boosted their hopes for a global climate treaty.
But greens would do well to put their celebrations on hold: This move has nothing to do with emissions, and everything to do with political savvy and China’s economic future. It has been clear for a long time that China is going to have to take on air pollution, among many other environmental issues. It’s also clear that China wants to reduce the energy intensity of its economy—the need to import more and more energy as the economy expands is a huge expense and a strategic vulnerability. Moreover, the commoditization of manufacturing, and the prospect that the terms of trade for manufacturers will continue to worsen, have long had smart Chinese planners looking for a way to shift the country’s economy up from the metal-bashing, stuff-making economy into something more high-tech and high value-added.
What all this means is that the scary “boogeyman” charts that greens draw up, projecting China’s energy growth out to infinity, have consistently overstated future CO2 projections. China must change its behavior for reasons that have zero—repeat, zero—to do with any threat of global warming.
However, given that these changes are coming, China is not averse to winning some PR points by spinning these impending policy changes as a noble effort to stop the scourge of global warming. China’s masses are becoming more and more restiveover the country’s environmental woes; these changes could put Beijing’s leadership on firmer footing with an ever more demanding populace.
China isn’t giving specific numbers at this point because the prospect of changes to energy and environmental policy sets off huge political battles, in which coal-belching state industries in relatively backward provinces vie with the more advanced southern coastal provinces where people are rich enough to worry more about pollution than about GDP.
But we can be sure that whatever proposals China makes will be all about the best possible economic growth path for China. Reducing global CO2 emissions is not a goal of the Chinese government. It will be at most an ancillary consequence of other decisions and policies put in place for quite different reasons.
Fans of global carbon treaty fans are desperate for good news, having watched their pet issue move from the front pages at the time of the Copenhagen summit to the obscure back pages of the specialist journals. (How many people followed the recently concluded Bonn edition of the global climate talks?). This news out of China will be used to try to pump up the publicity machine, but a serious CO2 treaty remains a no-hoper.