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.