Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Angry Europeans and Embarrassed Americans in New York

There's no doubt about it, this week's UN climate change meeting in New York has been a humbling experience for America. Being shown up by China in the field of environmental protection isn't exactly a shining moment for the US, but it may be a harbinger of the century to come.

European diplomats at the summit are reportedly seething at US inaction, and their reaction to Obama's almost completely substanceless speech yesterday was nothing short of incredulity. But with the climate bill stalled in the US senate and the healthcare fight likely to push it off the agenda until after the hugely important Copenhagen summit in December, Obama's hands are tied. With no climate bill passed by December, the US will likely not be able to commit to the post-Kyoto framework being worked out at the December summit, considered by Europe to be the "last chance" to save the world from the effects of climate change. Though just a year ago it was thought India and China would be the biggest obstructionists to reaching a global agreement, this week it has become clear: the US may be the lone force standing in the way of fighting climate change.

China, on the other hand, unveiled some big commitments this week. Yesterday China's President Hu committed China to getting 15% of its power from non-fossil sources by 2020, planting enough forest to cover an area the size of Norway and limiting the growth of carbon emissions as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product. I'm also hearing word that today at 2pm there will be an announcement at the New York Stock Exchange that China will launch a carbon valuation system called the "Panda Standard", where companies have a certain carbon allowance and can buy or sell credits as they need to. I've even heard that this announcement later today by China may be followed by an announcement setting up a Chinese cap and trade system like Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). I would be truly shocked if they do announce that, but if they do it would be hugely embarrassing for the US, which still has no cap and trade system or even a voluntary standard.

Once the Chinese government became convinced of the reality of climate change about a year ago, they have acted dramatically and rapidly with new environmental measures that now put them ahead of the US in several ways. They’ve restructured their development plans to cut down on high-emissions projects, and within two years they have phased out 54 million kw of coal-fired power capacity by small polluting power plants. Last year the issued new rules on the construction sector for the use of renewable products. They’ve poured money into the development of public transport and the promotion of environmentally-friendly vehicles. Also last year the government ordered retailers to stop providing free plastic shopping bags. China now has the world’s largest hydropower generating capacity and is currently the fourth largest wind power producer after the United States, Germany and Spain – and it’s catching up quickly. Last year renewable energy accounted for about nine percent of the country's energy total, surpassing the US.

Of course, with a top-down command economy China can afford to do these things at this speed. As Thomas Friedman has lamented, if only the US could be "China for a day". But no matter how they've attained these rapid results, the Chinese are putting the Americans to shame.

Needless to say with all the hope that was placed in Obama by Europeans, this has been a disappointing day across the pond. Newspapers over here have been questioning Obama's ability to deliver on climate change, with one particularly scathing article from the Guardian called 'Obama the Impotent' making the email rounds. The Guardian writes:
"On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to reverse the Bush administration's terrible ecological record. Yet so far the world has seen more symbolic gestures from the Obama administration than accomplishments. Its biggest achievement so far has been a disappointment. President Obama signed an executive order to increase US motor vehicle mileage standards – but only to a level that will push fuel efficiency by 2020 to a level that European and Japanese cars reached several years ago, and even China has already achieved."
However one consistent theme has been that the European papers are not blaming Obama himself for the inaction, but rather the government system he has the misfortune of having to lead. Writes the Guardian:
"Thwarting Obama on a regular basis is an unrepresentative senate where "minority rule" prevails and undermines what a majority of the country may want. With two senators elected per state, regardless of population, California with more than 35 million people has the same number of senators as Wyoming with just half a million residents. This constitutional arrangement greatly favours low population states, many of which tend to be conservative, producing what one political analyst has called "a weighted vote for small-town whites in pickup trucks with gun racks."
It should be no surprise that China is beginning to surpass the United States in several ways, after all this is slated to be the "China century," which will see a return to a two-superpower world with the US and China competing for power. But the fact that China is now surpassing the US in the fight against climate change should be a big wake-up call to Americans, especially liberals.


Anonymous said...

Vewry interesting blog, I had no idea China had done so much for the environment recently, I thought they were still a big probelm

Stephen said...

I think Hu also had a lot of words backed by little action, I think both the US and China are guilty of that. Maybe it's just that the Europeans expect more out of the Americans, because they are not China. The bar for China to impress has been set rather low.