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COMMENTARY: China, California Can Lead the Way on Climate Change

Mark Melnicoe 2018-11-19 14:53 PM
COMMENTARY: China, California Can Lead the Way on Climate Change

News emerged this week that California lowered its carbon emissions to pre-1990 levels in 2016, beating its target by a full four years. Perhaps of greater significance, the state's economy, which would be the fifth-largest in the world if California were a country, has grown at a faster pace than the nation as a whole while reducing its CO2 footprint.

This represents a seminal event – proof beyond a doubt that taking aggressive, but sensible, steps to lower carbon emissions does not come at the cost of economic growth. 

California's carbon output in 2016 was calculated at 13 percent below the peak level recorded in 2004, said Mary Nichols, chair of the state's Air Resources Board. Yet California's economy is galloping ahead of the nation as a whole. The richest and most populous state added two million jobs and grew its GDP by $700 billion since 2012, the end of the Great Recession. Its share of the national economy has been growing.

That's a huge deal, given that most of the opposition to action on global warming (aside from outright climate change deniers) comes from those who think government measures will stymie growth and harm jobs.

That brings us to China, where more carbon dioxide is spewed into the air than anywhere else. While China's emissions continue to grow along with its GDP, the country is simultaneously going all-out on solar power, wind power, and electric vehicles. It's a very expensive process to develop these nascent industries, but one that figures to pay big dividends in the future.

It's not a coincidence that California Gov. Jerry Brown went to China a year ago to meet with President Xi Jinping, where the two signed an agreement to work together to reduce greenhouse emissions. That visit came in the immediate wake of President Trump's announcement that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, the landmark accord signed by almost every country in the world and which the U.S. and China had ratified less than a year earlier.

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 China President Xi Jinping and California Gov. Jerry Brown in Beijing in 2017

(Source: Xinhua)

With the U.S. national leadership under Trump and his fellow Republicans are showing zero interest in attacking climate change, is it realistic to hope for meaningful global action? In the short term, maybe not. But this is a long-term challenge. Climatologists are looking at 2100 as a pivot point, using that year as a touchstone for the dire effects of sea level rise if we don't curb our fossil fuel emissions.

"China is fundamentally critical for what happened to global emissions," Niklas Höhne of the New Climate Institute and one of the scientists who contributes to the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told the Financial Times. 

"The outlook for 2018 is actually bad," Höhne said, noting that China's use of coal, oil, and gas are slated to increase this year. "One major goal of the Paris agreement is that global emissions peak as soon as possible, and China is the one that determines in the end whether global emissions will peak soon or not. That is why all eyes are on China."

With determination on the part of leaders from California, which has had uniquely tough vehicle-emission standards for decades, Europe, and an ever-emerging China, there is reason for hope.

Last year's agreement between California and China's Ministry of Science and Technology signified an effort to counter Trump's Paris withdrawal. The deal, along with separate ones Brown signed with the Chinese provinces of Jiangsu and Sichuan, are non-binding and without targets. But their provisions for investment and cooperation on clean-energy technologies could push others in the same direction.

Look at what China is doing already. Last year, almost half of the world's new investment in renewable energy came from China. Its spending rose to $126 billion, more than triple that of the second-place U.S. Most of China's effort went into solar, in which it took over the global lead in 2016. Last year China added 53 gigawatts of solar capacity - enough to power 38 million homes. It also spent heavily on wind turbines.

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(Source: ZEV Alliance)

Additionally, China has taken a big leadership role in electric vehicles. It overtook the U.S. in that category back in 2016 and is expecting to sell 1 million e-vehicles this year. And it's growing fast. China aims for 2 million EV sales in 2020 and has longer-term plans to completely eliminate gas-engine cars.

Yes, China still relies on coal for more than half its electricity needs and burns more fossil fuels than any other country. But it is also making serious inroads, while trying to become a prosperous country at the same time. It's a tough trick to pull off.

This is an area where world leaders must be as visionary as Brown and Xi and start working together. The next American president can easily recommit the U.S. to the Paris accords and re-establish U.S. leadership.

With epic heat waves taking place all over the globe and a major new study suggesting the worst-case scenario predicted by scientists may not go nearly far enough, there seems little choice. International cooperation is critical, and it's getting more urgent year by year. Together, China and, eventually, the U.S., can and should lead the way.