Jonathan Chait recently scolded the Wall Street Journal for an editorial it ran detailing the harm the EPA’s proposal to slash 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from existing power would inflict on the economy. And though he utilized the standard inventory of liberal grievances, Chait added a gotcha. You see, though the WSJ had “sneered” at the prospect of Obama’s unilateral move inspiring countries like China to similarly tackle emissions, Chait points out that the very next day the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases went ahead and promised to set its own absolute cap on emissions by 2016. “The target will be written into China’s next five-year plan, which comes into force in 2016,” said He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, according to a Reuters story.
Obama’s leadership was already working! Salon, (“Hopping on the climate bandwagon? China says it, too, may cap emissions”) Think Progress (“One Day After U.S. Announces Emissions Target, China Says Carbon Cap Is On The Way”) and others, were thrilled about the news.
There are, it turns out, a few minor problems with this storyline. The most glaring? It isn’t actually true. Andrew C. Revkin of the New York Times did some legwork and reports that He Jiankun has absolutely no power to speak for the Chinese government or even the climate committee. And no one had actually made any mention of China pondering a new quantitative cap on carbon dioxide emissions. (h/t Tim Carney.)
I consulted with The Times’s Beijng bureau. Christopher Buckley, a reporter who in 2011 had covered China’s emissions plans while with Reuters, spoke with He Jiankun, who told him repeatedly that he did not in any way speak for the government, or the full expert climate committee.
The corrected Reuters piece now tells us that “Adviser says China considers cap on CO2 emissions.” Now, obviously, it’s not Chait’s fault that a highly regarded media outlet ran with a story that relied heavily on wishful thinking and happened to bolster Obama’s new bid to save the planet. But, the thing is, even if the story were true, China is always promising to reduce carbon emission and it’s always disregarding those promises. Just as easily as autocrats can provide edicts — the kind of unilateral actions so many liberals seem to admire these days — they can just as easily break or ignore them.
Back in 2009, in the lead up to global summit on climate change in Copenhagen, China set a “firm target” for limiting greenhouse gas emissions, and that it would aim to reduce its “carbon intensity” by 40-45 percent by the year 2020. China made similar promises ahead of the Doha conference in 2012. China has seen some modest gains through efficiencies, but it still loves coal and has yet to meet any of those benchmarks, or even try.
Moreover, in China environmental policy is less about rules and more about suggestions. China recently released a report that found only a small fraction of its cities comply even the most basic anti-pollution regulations. When it comes to large-scale caps on growth, an extensive piece in the Economist points out that China deploys its own form of federalism:
In the West it is often said that one of China’s chief advantages in dealing with climate change is that its leaders can impose tough policies that democratic systems shy away from. Mr Wen once said the government would use “an iron hand” to make the country more energy-efficient. But in environmental matters the government does not have an iron hand.
If local officials—mayors and provincial or county party secretaries—do not like a policy, they can quietly ignore it. As an official in Guangdong once said about pollution controls, “We don’t think these decisions apply to us.” The bosses of large state-owned companies often wield as much power as the ministers who supervise them. Occult systems of patronage matter more than apparent hierarchies. In the Chinese system, the centre proposes; provinces and counties dispose.
Contra Chait, a person can believe in climate change science and still believe that deliberately sabotaging economic growth rather than focusing on adaptation is an immoral proposition. It is more likely that China’s position is the one that Xie Zhenhua, the nation’s chief negotiator on climate change treaties, offered state media a few years back. And that is that it would irrational to expect a growing nation with a per capita GDP of $5,000 to set absolute caps in emissions. China, in fact, has consistently stated that emissions would likely keep rising until its per capita GDP was around five times what it is today. Which is good news for the billions of Chinese still living in poverty and bad news for Western Luddites.