Will Biggest Polluters, China and the U.S., be Biggest Contributors to the Solution?

Written by Matt Barrett on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington, D.C. for meetings this week with President Obama. Yesterday, they issued a joint statement saying that the U.S. and China “view climate change and energy security as two of the greatest challenges of our time” and Obama added that they have a “responsibility” to create a clean energy future.

That makes sense given that the two countries combine to emit 43 percent of the world’s carbon pollution, as David Biello writes in Scientific American’s blog. China is now the world’s largest emitter, with the U.S. a close second.

And, there is perhaps no better confirmation of this understanding of the need for clean energy than the fact that business is paying attention and making moves. Just yesterday, major U.S. and Chinese companies agreed to speed up the development and implementation of clean energy technologies by signing onto a number of joint projects. We’re talking about the big guns from the U.S.: General Electric, Duke Energy Corp., American Electric Power, Alcoa, and others.

In addition, just last Friday, China announced it would set a 2011-specific goal of reducing emissions of major pollutants by 1.5 percent from last year’s levels. The country plans to begin rejecting overly-polluting construction projects, developing technologies to remove sulfur, nitrogen and other pollutants from manufacturing, and increasing efforts to control vehicle emissions and heavy-polluting industries – though details of those efforts have not yet been specified.

In all, It seems to be quite a modest announcement and one that does not seem to single out carbon pollution – the most prolific greenhouse gas. But, in this era of rapid growth in China, the goal reflects the fact that the country knows full well that it will not be able to survive and thrive in the long run without addressing its emissions.

Given U.S. attention on China this week, we asked Zhang Shuang, The Nature Conservancy’s China program director, for his perspective on the visit and he provided us with an interesting take on China’s progress toward addressing carbon pollution.

“News stories will doubtlessly label China as the ‘world’s largest polluter’, having the ‘most polluted air, water and soil’ and its status as the ‘world’s largest coal consumer.’ Of course all of these things are true.

“What’s also true is the enormous strides that the Chinese are making to clean up the country, to protect natural places and rivers, to develop in a sustainable way, and to bring up the 800 million people who still live in desperate poverty,” said Shuang.

He added, “So, some other labels that ought to accompany China are equally true:

“World’s biggest tree planters” (over 10 billion trees per year)

“World’s largest manufacturer of renewable energy technologies” (solar panels and wind turbines)

“Most aggressive energy efficiency goal” (cutting carbon emissions by 1.5 billion tons from 2005-2010 and tying job performance of governors and industry to success in curbing carbon energy)

“World-leading mass transit developer” (Beijing alone opened 100 new miles of subway last year and will open 400 new miles by 2015)

So, it’s important to recognize that our work to save this planet for our grandchildren is work that is shared across boundaries and labels.”

Let’s hope Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao are true to their joint word.

Matt Barrett is marketing manager for climate change at The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Flickr user danishwindindustryassociation (Xioa Yan Kou Farm, Rudong, China)

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