Too much hot air?

As the UN Climate Change talks in South Africa ended, one country emerged as an unexpected leader in the transition to green technology – the People’s Republic of China. For although China remained evasive on the EU roadmap that would create a legally binding global treaty from 2020, its recent progress on the adoption of wind turbines and solar power, placed the developed nations who have been its fiercest critics in an embarrassing spotlight.

Widely blamed for the disappointing conclusion of the Copenhagen talks two years ago, the PRC clearly wanted to flummox the West even further, and it succeeded in doing so handsomely. For while China remains the largest single polluter – Beijing regularly disappears under Dickensian smogs and several parts of the country resemble environmental wastelands – it can claim to have made more headway in adopting low-impact technology than the great majority of developed nations. The United States – with an annual emission of 19.3 tonnes (more than four times greater than China`s) is by far the worst offender in this regard  – yet  its 18 billion dollar research and development budget is only a little more than half of China`s. Since Copenhagen, China has also doubled the number of photovoltaic cells and decreased its per capita emissions. Furthermore, it has done so during an unprecedented industrial expansion – something very few countries would even consider possible.

As ever, the statistics conceal important complications, and a great deal of politicking  For instance, small, energy rich countries fare poorly when ranked by per capita emissions – Qatar currently leads the field, with Trinidad and Tobago second – while countries like China and India (with relatively low numbers, but vast populations) represent grave, possibly apocalyptic challenges to the planet. Yet a closer look reveals important nuances even here. Twenty years ago the industrialised world was responsible for more than three-quarters of global emissions. Since then the balance has shifted decisively towards the developing world – but mainly because developing countries have assumed the burden of manufacturing cheap goods for the post-industrial West. For decades, the West has exploited pollution-friendly parts of the world for its fridges, televisions, computers and smart phones – only to hector the very same countries later, because they are damaging the environment or altering the climate.

Brazil, South Africa, India and China – commonly known as the BASIC bloc – have tried to push back against what some have called the European Union`s “climate evangelism“ but neither side has made an unanswerable case for its point of view. While these groups have wrangled the United States – in which legally binding emission targets would be a political albatross – has proceeded very gingerly on the sidelines, urging others to adopt ambitious targets, but staying well clear of serious commitments.

China has been roundly criticised for its short-sighted development – such as neglecting mass transit in favour of private automobiles – while America`s crumbling infrastructure has been quietly ignored. This strategy has now boomeranged, however, for while China races ahead on R&D and new infrastructure spending, the West seems to be offering little more than rhetorical assurances about the future. Moreover, if and when binding agreements are reached, countries like China look set to profit even more from early investment in green technologies.

In one of his best jokes, Winston Churchill once quipped that America always finds the correct answer to its problems, but only after exhausting the alternatives. Something similar could be said of the European Union, especially when it comes to climate change and debt relief. For while the easily-criticised polluters BASIC bloc grapples with the challenges of economic development, the world`s largest authoritarian state has managed to make measurable improvements in its greenhouse emissions while the preachy, democratic West has produced little more than hot air.

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