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October 31, 2006

Gore To China?

The Economist has a good rundown of the new study showing unchecked global warming will consume 5%-20% of worldwide GDP -- a catastrophic amount that makes preemptive measures a downright bargain.  Relatedly, I was at an event yesterday uniting all manner of (small "e") economist types, many of whom spoke dreamily of the need for some national investment in innovative industries, most of whom thought renewable energy offered both the most promise and the most possible gain.  That's certainly backed up by this graph, which sort of scares the hell out of me:

Global_warming_graph

But how to slow China?  Problem is, the work should've been done decades ago.  Via Brad Plumer, this New York Review of Books piece tells the story:

Kelly Sims Gallagher, one of the savviest early analysts of climate policy, has devoted the last few years to understanding the Chinese energy transition. Now the director of the Energy Technology Innovation Project at Harvard's Kennedy School, she has just published a fascinating account of the rise of the Chinese auto industry. Her research makes it clear that neither American industry nor the American government did much of anything to point the Chinese away from our addiction to gas-guzzling technology; indeed, Detroit (and the Europeans and Japanese to a lesser extent) was happy to use decades-old designs and processes.

"Even though cleaner alternatives existed in the United States, relatively dirty automotive technologies were transferred to China," she writes. One result is the smog that is choking Chinese cities; another is the invisible but growing cloud of greenhouse gases, which come from tailpipes but even more from the coal-fired utilities springing up across China. In retrospect, historians are likely to conclude that the biggest environmental failure of the Bush administration was not that it did nothing to reduce the use of fossil fuels in America, but that it did nothing to help or pressure China to transform its own economy at a time when such intervention might have been decisive.

It's not that the decisions were incomprehensible at the time.  Why would Detroit want to share advanced anti-pollution technologies given China's penchant for lax intellectua property regulation?  But comprehensible though they were, they'll prove destructive shortly.  The policy choices are dispiriting, here.  While elites like the muse about gas taxes, I'd guess there's precisely no chance of one being passed into law.  If we had a bipartisan accord  where both parties unanimously endorsed such a program and thus dispersed blame and retribution, maybe.  We don't.  Investment in some sort of Apollo Alliance project would be a good move, both from a jobs and environmental perspective, but it's unclear how rapid the advances will be.  So I trend towards the pessimistic side on all this, but who knows?  Maybe 2008 will see the inagauration of President Gore, and everything will be different.

October 31, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Yeah, the China problem is a good reason for pessimism. I think there's even more reason for pessimism in this point:

Poor countries, in fact, would bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, the report says, but it suggests that rich countries must bear 60 percent to 80 percent of the responsibility for emissions reductions.

In other words, the people who most need to change what they do are not the people who stand to suffer the worst damage. I read that and thought, my god, there's really no hope of substantive change.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Oct 31, 2006 5:46:19 PM

Maybe 2008 will see the inagauration of President Gore, and everything will be different.

Considering the dire state of the planet now and the scary future that awaits if we keep going the way we're going, I can only hope that this will go from your mouth to the Almighty's ear, Ezra. I fear I have very little pull, but you're young, talented, and (I'm guessing) not too terribly jaded just yet--perhaps He (or She) will grant your wish on behalf of the rest of us.

After hearing about Obama and McCain's little joint project, I've had to cross out the name of another '08 potential. With pencil, mind you, but crossed out nonetheless. So I'm back to rooting for Gore, who isn't even a candidate. Yet.

Posted by: litbrit | Oct 31, 2006 7:57:10 PM

We really need to go as massively nuclear as fast as possible. It will take a lot of energy to develop and manufacture alternatives, and it can't be coal. We need dirt cheap alternatives to sell to China and developing nations to replace the coal plants. Unfortunately small reasonably cheap quick nuclear is also decades away.

I think it was knzn at Angry Bear who said he was glad he didn't have forty years left. It is weird for me to say I am glad I probably have 10-20 max. Gonna be a lifeboat and triage situation. Gonna be as bad as anything in history.

I'm sorry.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 31, 2006 10:36:49 PM

Gonna be a lifeboat and triage situation. Gonna be as bad as anything in history.

Global warming, or your death?

Posted by: Sanpete | Oct 31, 2006 11:03:35 PM

You can't make this stuff up, this sounds like something from James Glassman.

Posted by: Guy Montag | Oct 31, 2006 11:07:08 PM

The strongest move we can make at the moment to reduce the basis for resource conflict with China is also the strongest move we can make to re-establish our economic future ... Energy Independence.

Sure its just a rough estimate, but the ecological footprint of the US is about 9.6 hectares / person, while capacity is about 4.7 ha/person. And it seems that the use of other country's biocapacity is what "high income" normally buys, with Germany at a footprint of 4.5 ha/person and capacity of 1.7 ha/person, and Japan at a footprint of 4.4 ha/person and capacity of 0.7 ha/person.

China, by contrast, is at an ecological footprint of 1.6 ha/person, against a capacity of 0.8 ha/person, while India is at a footprint of 0.8ha/person and a capacity of 0.4ha/person.

If the US were to ratchet down to a merely German level of gluttony, we would provide the breathing room for development and provision to the high population / low income countries of the lower impact technologies that we should have been developing and rolling out twenty years ago.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Oct 31, 2006 11:22:49 PM

I think it is incorrect to assume that the Chinese would have used advanced pollution control technology had it been provided. Even if you have these technologies and know what to do, it still costs a lot to actually use them.
Even if technology transfer from advanced automobile companies to China had been placed under the control of enviromentalists and they had transferred that technology for free with the sole criteria of minimizin g pollution in China, I doubt that would have made any difference.
The entire Chinese economy, like other communist economies have been and as most third world economies are, is organized to maximize production by ignoring environmental impacts. Many large 3rd world cities have utterly unbreathable air.
I think it is barking up the wrong tree to think that the economically advanced nations were in a position to make a difference by supplying this technology. I am not blaming China and I am not saying to just stand by with an attitude of "it's their mess, let them deal with it". I am saying that China as a nation choses to maximize production and ignore environmental impacts. (And so did all the nations with advanced economies when they were at China's current level of development. ) Therefore, the solution must start from working with why they make that choice. (And by "make that choice" I means both that there is considerable popular support for such an economy (people with low incomes want inexpensive goods) and considerable imposition of it by the elite and its government.)

Posted by: Kevin Rooney | Nov 1, 2006 7:03:44 AM

"people with low incomes want inexpensive goods"

Uhh, this is what we are going to change worldwide? In 50 years, maybe?

Not that I am against it, necessarily. I mean, massive highrise dormitories with lots of parks, very few cars, 1 shared television per 25 citizens, emphasis on leisure time, exercise, bingo. Maybe unicolor hemp overalls.

Just sounds like a bit of a challenge.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 1, 2006 7:47:59 AM

"You can't make this stuff up, this sounds like something from James Glassman." ...

And if we are going to save anything like half the world's population, people like Guy and Fred Jones are going to have to be moved out of the way. Not tomorrow, right now.

I know some here are all peaceful and stuff, but the right would kill a billion people to keep a 1 percent tax cut. That is what I meant by lifeboat. It should not be the poor and helpless thrown overboard.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 1, 2006 8:01:42 AM

A lot of third world countries run their diesel truck slightly rich to make them last longer. "Rich" means a fuel heavy, air light mixture.

This throws a ton of soot into the air -- i.e. unburned carbon.

Posted by: anon | Nov 1, 2006 8:21:32 AM

Ezra,

I think your blame of "Detroit" is misplaced. It's my impression (stats either way appreciated) that the vast majority of China's current and projected CO2 output is from coal-fired electrical generation, heating and smelting--the impact of transportation is fairly trivial.

Does anyone have any facts either way?

Posted by: SamChevre | Nov 1, 2006 9:08:37 AM

Posted by: SamChevre | Nov 1, 2006 6:08:37 AM I think your blame of "Detroit" is misplaced. It's my impression (stats either way appreciated) that the vast majority of China's current and projected CO2 output is from coal-fired electrical generation, heating and smelting -- the impact of transportation is fairly trivial.

Does anyone have any facts either way?

I don't have the facts at hand, but from a Master's thesis I saw last year on Chinese air pollution[*], coal fired electricity, coal fired heating and cooking, and coal fired industrial processes would seem to be the top three generators of particulate emissions.

However that's part of the baseline, and the Chinese have been relying heavily on coal for many things for a long time, and are working to reduce coal-fired heating and cooking in particular. So it may well be that transportation plays a bigger role in the increase in CO2 than it does in the baseline.

[* CO2 is, of course, not air pollution as such, so some of the issues in air pollution, like concentration of emission sources and the creation of disease hot spots, do not apply - its all about the total emissions]

Posted by: BruceMcF | Nov 1, 2006 10:29:44 AM

Posted by: anon | Nov 1, 2006 5:21:32 AM This throws a ton of soot into the air -- i.e. unburned carbon.

That's a serious health problem, but as far as CO2 emissions, its only the C that actually gets burned that ends up as CO2.

Posted by: BruceMcF | Nov 1, 2006 10:33:06 AM

Bruce,

I was only making the point that first world car companies aren't making the air sooty in China.

It's a conscious choice in many cases by the direct parties involved.

Posted by: anon | Nov 1, 2006 12:55:26 PM

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