China, Copenhagen and the Uptown-Downtown Problem.

Last week I posted at length on my low expectations for China in Copenhagen. The full post can be found here, but in summary: I suggested that – even if China felt that it was in its national interest to control carbon emissions, it lacks the regulatory infrastructure to enforce any kind of law or agreement. China has never enforced environmental laws in the past; there’s no reason to think that it can or will start now. A few days later a regular reader who uses the tag “Feng” left a brief comment that I think is worth posting in its own right. As it happens, I know “Feng,” and though I’ll respect his (relative) anonymity, I do feel obliged to note that he is one of the most thoughtful, knowledgeable, and hopeful thinkers on China’s environment that I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. In the future, he’ll be heard from; for now, his comment:

If you ever had a chance to talk to local academic people or politicians in China, you will realize that climate change is still not on their top agenda, and they have more to worry about direct pollution and toxicity from the industries. The reason is clear, ’cause you don’t expect people to drive BMW when they are just about to earn sufficient food.

I think the main incentives for China to join in this global debate are the pressure from the States to push China making promise and self-motivation for making a positive image globally. It is all about politics…

By and large, I think this is correct. The developed West – especially the United States – needs to face the reality that China’s most pressing environmental issue is not carbon, but contamination of land and water. Carbon, from the point-of-view of Chinese local officials struggling to provide clean water to vast populations, just doesn’t resonate like it does in, say, Manhattan. It’s an “uptown” problem, if you will, that just doesn’t work for downtown folks trying to determine whether their home well is laced with lead. To be sure, China’s environmental problems are of its own making, and the various levels of the Party shouldn’t be absolved of their responsibility in creating/allowing them. But what’s done is done, and no amount of Western media coverage, teeth gnashing, and naive academic editorials suggesting that China is actually a global leader in carbon reduction efforts (see here, and here), can change the fact that climate change just isn’t a top priority in Beijing or the provinces. That would change, of course, if climate change protests – rather than, say, lead contamination protests – began to break out in the provinces. But so far, at least, that’s not happening.

In time, in coming decades, China’s commitment to carbon reduction will grow, but only as its more immediate environmental problems are addressed, first. This shouldn’t be hard to understand – or act upon (especially when the Chinese delegation is busy demonstrating its lack of seriousness via carefully parsed stunts/distractions like suggesting climate “reparations”). Like it or not, the developed world, if it’s serious about climate change, is going to have to do this on its own – or not at all – for a while.


  1. Adam.

    Of the 36 teams of MBA students (200 students in total) who are REQUIRED to take my class in sustainability, only 1 group chose carbon as their topic.

    The most popular topics. elderly care and water

    Carbon is a political term, and if there is one thing that I would add to your post is that in its drive to solve other problems, you will see massive improvements in its carbon numbers.

    Carbon unlike in the west where carbon is treated as “the” problem, it is treated as a byproduct of problems, and as China fixes its systemic issues it will have larger knockon effects that I think anyone realizes.


  2. i think feng’s comments, if they were from smith, would be equally applicable to the usa, especially the part about this issue being political …

    and uptown/downtown aside, no one really knows what is going on in the atmosphere. everything is connected to everything, and far more than just temperature is in play …

    the good thing about paying attention to what we can see, pollution, is that at least something is being done that is not as politicized, and does add value to human experience on earth ..

    and who is behind the carbon swap meme? yeah, biiiiig business ..

  3. Are you excusing China and saying that the West should take the responsbility while the poor countries pollute? Of course the West did its own pollution but much happened before there were good technologies to help stop the pollution. China developed when the world knew about the problem and the Chinese government didn’t do anything. Instead it behave like it is 1950 and not 2010.

  4. For China (and India), the first best approach they could take is overall improvements in operational efficiency, sealing up pipes, pumps, etc. to reduce leakage of all pollutants, worker and management education, etc.

    Carbon is a pollutant but in most cases, CO2 emissions go hand in hand with other emitted pollutants. Many industries in the EU, N. America and Japan have saved alot of money and reduced pollution just by utilizing proper O&M, plugging leaks, installing new emissions control equipment, etc.

    And again, these industries saved alot of money by reducing overall wasted energy and product.

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