March 19, 2013

The Fallacy of the China Defense

[Note: I'm taking a small blog hiatus for a couple months to work on my next book. More on that later.]

For anyone who doesn't want to reduce carbon emissions, China seems like a great scapegoat. The defenders of the status quo argue that U.S. companies will be at a disadvantage if we tax carbon or invest in clean energy because "China's not doing anything."

Beijing%20pollution%2C%20iStock_000005196938XSmall.jpg
(Beijing pollution)

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently offered up a perfect example of this idea: "There are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much greater than we are — China, India, all these countries that are still growing. They're not going to stop doing what they're doing." And New York Times op-ed writer Joe Nocera used the China Defense last week in his latest pro-fossil-fuels piece: "the Chinese are far more concerned with economic growth than climate change."

But there are three little problems with this logic:

1) It's not true.

China recently demolished this fallacy when leaders announced they would implement a carbon tax. And when the new Premier spoke on Sunday, he belied Nocera's assertion with a speech that, in the Times words, "laid out a vision of a more equitable society in which environmental protection trumps unbridled growth." These policy shifts are a very big deal for all 7 billion of us sharing the climate. And it's just the latest in a series of Chinese commitments, which include the following:

Is China still growing and emitting more carbon? Of course. Is it planning to build another 363 coal plants? Yes. So the world is not black and white. But even with lots of coal and oil investment, there's no way you can say China is doing nothing on clean tech.

2) Science doesn't care.

The math and physics of climate change are getting clearer by the day. As those tree-huggers at McKinsey and PwC UK have calculated, we need to decarbonize at a rapid rate — about 5 percent less carbon per dollar of GDP every year until 2050. This has to happen no matter who goes "first," and is basically the argument put forth by Grist writer David Roberts recently. We have to try, no matter what anyone else is doing. And, by the way, the impacts of doing nothing will keep growing — Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the Midwest are just the beginning. The costs of inaction are rising, which brings me to...

3) We should want to go clean anyway.

One of Sen. Rubio's other comments, the most common specious argument against acting on climate change, was that restricting carbon would "devastate" the economy. This is, to borrow a phrase, malarkey.

Even putting aside the literally trillions available through energy efficiency, there's a vast upside from creating new industries. According to the bank HSBC, the clean economy will be a multi-trillion dollar market soon. After all, we're reinventing the world's largest industries: energy, transportation, and buildings. Most other major economies get this and are investing heavily in the clean economy. But no country has gone as fast as China, which has grown its share of solar manufacturing to 50% in avery short time (with nearly as impressive a performance in wind).

I could keep going with counterarguments — like shouldn't we lead because we're, well, leaders? But even if science doesn't care and the whole "China isn't doing it" argument is a lie, I'm partial to number 3: We make money doing it and it's good for us. That's enough for me.

(The majority of this post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

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Comments

On March 20, 2013 1:03 PM, BrookeBF said:

Spot on Andrew.

As you know, I live in Texas where oil is a huge part of our economy. There are plenty of good people who use the China 'arguments' you've laid out here as a way to rationalize their personal involvement with an industry that is ultimately bad for our future.

To me, the challenge seems to be that any person who is so heavily invested in the existing industry (their families have been in it for years, their friends are all in it, their entire net worth is derived from it) have a very hard time absorbing the need to change because of data that does not compute with their framework of existence. For them, this WILL hurt 'our' economy dramatically.

The glimmer of good news is that I do know a handful of executives with major oil companies who are focused on wind and other emerging technologies who are well versed in the real issues with developing those industries to a point of viability.

On March 20, 2013 1:49 PM, Andrew said:

Brooke,
Thanks for your comment. Of course, you're right about the fact that someone's perception of the economy is based heavily on where in the economy they are! The reality is that a change this big will of course have winners and losers. We have to take care of those who will be hit hardest by the change, but not let it derail us from the larger goal and the larger market opportunity.
Andrew

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