The China Syndrome
The China Syndrome
India was silent earlier this month when the world hailed China’s announcement about taking drastic measures to cut its greenhouse gas emission. It is not that India doubts that the planet’s health will benefit from reduced emissions, but rather that it is troubled by China’s defection as a nay-saying partner.
While India has good reason to worry about standing alone in the face of global pressure to commit to reducing carbon emissions, that sense of discomfort should compel India to adopt a more balanced approach. India’s need to grow – and pollute – must be weighed against social and economic costs of pollution and of being an international pariah. Worshipping the Chinese growth model has to be tempered by the dire consequences of growth that has forced China to reverse course.
Until recently China and India argued that historically western industrialisation is responsible for buildup of greenhouse gases. China and India are so far behind in terms of economic growth, they argued, that they should not be required to accept specific targets to reduce emission – as western countries demand. Indian diplomats recall how during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, a worried Chinese premier Wen Jiabao called Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his hotel, urging him to never leave China’s side in facing down western pressure. India’s support at Copenhagen did help China avoid isolation and contributed to the summit’s failure to reach an agreement on an emissions reduction target.
New Delhi now fears that at the December 2015 Paris global climate summit it will be standing alone in its opposition.
Indian negotiators will argue that the country’s per capita CO2 emission of 1.7 tons is nothing compared to China’s 6.2 tons and US’s 17.6 tons. Thanks to its large population, even its comparatively low per capita emissions add up to make it the world’s number three emitter. India’s poor have an undeniable right to seek a better life and the government has no option but to bring power to those living in the dark and provide employment to its surging youth population through industrialisation – which will inevitably increase emissions.
China has done exactly that; 99% of Chinese people (as opposed to India’s 75 per cent) have electricity and its phenomenal industrial growth has made it the world’s second biggest economy. However, the price China has paid for the growth is becoming increasingly clear. In 2012 alone nearly 700,000 died prematurely because of industrial pollution.
People living in China’s crowded metropolises, choking in dense industrial smog, hanker for clearer skies. During the week of November when the APEC summit was being held in Beijing, polluting factories were shut down and use of automobiles restricted. Beijing shone brightly under a sky the Chinese described wryly as “APEC blue”, a tantalising, chimerical hue for the benefit of foreign dignitaries. It was an apt backdrop for President Xi Jinping to announce that China would peak its carbon emissions in 2030 and by that date, one-fifth of its energy would come from wind, hydro, biofuel and nuclear power. Xi’s promise to generate 800 gigawatts of power from renewable sources in the next 16 years sounds incredible.
To put that pledge in context, a Chinese economist at the World Bank told me that in order to achieve that goal China would have to build four wind turbine farms every week and one nuclear reactor every three weeks. Given China’s command economy and its demonstrated skill in building gargantuan projects, one should not dismiss the ambitious plan. The question is why China has suddenly taken on this enormous undertaking. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, the answer is blowing in the polluted wind.
All too visible throughout the country are consequences of China’s coal-burning growth. It can also be found in the growing anger of Chinese people, breaking out in spontaneous demonstrations against pollution, in the contrasting lives of the rich, who live indoors with air purifiers and send their children to clean-air countries for education. These are all flashing danger signs that no savvy political leader can ignore.
Likewise, India should not ignore the Chinese lesson either. Turning a wilfully blind eye to environmental concerns because per capita emissions are low is to court the kind of disaster that is now forcing China to reverse course. The world is too interconnected and the long-term stakes are too high for India to go it alone in claiming it has a right to pollute.
Nayan Chanda is editor of YaleGlobal Online, based at Yale University’s MacMillan Center.