Labor movements around the world are beginning to confront the consequences of global warming. Big changes are in store over the next few decades whether humanity acts, or fails to act, to effectively address global warming. What happens in China, the world’s fastest growing economy and now the largest total emitter of greenhouse gases, matters to people everywhere. But like the rest of the world, China seems trapped in an unsustainable economy with dire consequences for us all.
A toxic haze
In our last post, following our return from a trip to China in April and early May, we wrote about some of the environmental consequences of China’s rapidly growing dependence on private automobiles. The exhaust fumes from those cars mingles with the smoke from the mills, factories, and coal fired power plants that ring China’s big cities to form a toxic haze that takes a high toll in lives and money. The World Health Organization estimates that about 656,000 people each year die prematurely as result of all types of air pollution.
Air pollution is a major public issue in China, one that elicits public protests, press attention, and increasingly, government action. The old idea of industrialization first, environment later is slowly giving way to a more nuanced approach to development. The Chinese government is taking steps to reduce air pollution. Higher quality gasoline is now being sold in China; automobile emission controls and tougher mileage standards are being phased in; new scrubbing technology is being built into (some) new coal power plants; more efficient boilers are coming on line in buildings and factories; new energy saving building codes have been enacted in Beijing and elsewhere; public transport systems are expanding; and some steel mills and power plants are being moved away from big cities.
Global attention is focused on Beijing’s air pollution as this year’s Olympics Games draws near. Athletes have expressed concerns about the health hazards of breathing Beijing’s air: world record marathoner Haile Gebrselassie, has actually opted out of running the marathon. In response, authorities in Beijing have instituted additional measures to reduce pollution: construction will temporarily be halted to keep down dust and fumes; alternate day car use schemes will be put in place to reduce traffic; and the operation of polluting mills, factories, and power plants will be halted or curtailed.
Coal fired pollution
If it were simply a matter of air pollution there would be some grounds for optimism. Estimates are that air quality in Chinese cities today is similar to what air quality was in US and European cities in the 1970s-80s prior to major clear air initiatives like the Clean Air Act. Following the lead of the West, it should therefore be possible for China to clean up the worst aspects of its air pollution in a few decades—or less, since important knowledge and technology now exist about what works and what does not to reduce air pollution.
Unfortunately, fixing air pollution does not eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. The big problem is that China’s stunning economic growth is driven for the most part by coal fired power plants. One new plant comes on line each week. About 65% of China’s energy needs are met by coal. And there is simply no known way to make coal clean. New and existing coal technology will help scrub power plant smoke of particulates and gases as it its introduced over the next few decades. But this technology does not reduce greenhouse emissions. To address that problem, some in China and elsewhere pin their hopes on carbon sequestration—storing smoke stack emissions underground where it will not affect the atmosphere. And the reality is, even in the most optimistic scenarios, carbon sequestration technology will not be available for decades, if ever. And, if and when it does become available, it will likely be at a cost so high that it will not be competitive with renewable alternatives such as wind or solar power production.
Planned energy conservation programs are important and can reduce demand and therefore carbon emissions, but in the context of explosive economic growth, conservation will moderate rather than reverse the increasing rate of greenhouse gas emissions in China.
China is also working on alternative energy projects and technologies and has set ambitious targets for alternative power generation. Current government targets call for China to increase its use of renewable energy from 10% to 20% by 2020. Many doubt these targets will actually be met given China’s almost insatiable need for power to run its red hot economy. But as carbon based fuels become ever more expensive, alternative energy sources like wind and solar could become more attractive. Already, solar hot water heaters are a fixture on the roofs of many buildings in parts of China.
New nuclear power plants may also replace some coal fired plants. But the cost and obvious environmental problems with existing nuclear technology make it a costly, dangerous, and-- we hope –unattractive alternative.
The issue of greenhouse gas emission and global warming—in contrast to general air pollution—is only now beginning to emerge as a subject of public discourse in China. In recent conversations in China with people from many walks of life our questions about global warming were often met with bewilderment and skepticism or only a vague awareness of the issue. And knowledgeable business consultants reported that while there were a few individual companies that were addressing “green issues” and global warming, there were no major initiatives by either foreign or domestic companies.
But global warming may already be a problem for China. According to the Economist, “The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that temperatures in China are rising and extreme weather, including cyclones, droughts, and floods, is on the increase.” According to the report the Himalayan ice cap which feeds China’s rivers is melting, and “…the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.” Another result of global warming is the desertification of large areas of Northern China and the subsequent loss of crop lands. Rice yields are also falling by about 10% for each for each one degree rise in temperature.
The central government has addressed the issue. China has developed a Climate Change Mitigation Plan and, unlike the United States, China ratified the Kyoto Protocol. But like the US, China has resisted mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions. At Bali and in other global forums, China and other developing nations argue that the industrialized world was built on fossil fuels and it is the 150 years of carbon emission from this process that has fouled the atmosphere and led to the current crisis. It is not acceptable, they maintain, to demand that developing nations forego carbon based industrialization—especially when countries like the US produce 3-6 times the greenhouse gasses per capita than China does.
The developed world responds, as it has so often in the past, with stunning hypocrisy. There is increasing talk in both the US and the EU of imposing a “carbon tariff” on goods from China and other countries that do not agree to targeted emission cuts—even as the developed world does little itself. The reality is that both the US and the EU have actually outsourced a significant part of their carbon emissions to China: a significant percentage of China’s greenhouse emissions are a direct result of products being produced by and for US and EU brands for export back to home markets.
For its part, the US never signed Kyoto; refuses to set tough auto mileage standards; under funds public transportation; does little to promote alternative energy; and produces about half of its electricity with coal fired power plants. Meanwhile Americans live in energy intensive houses in suburbs that require them to drive virtually everywhere—which they do in over-sized low mileage automobiles, SUVs, and pick-up trucks. And when gasoline begins to approach three-quarters of what people in Europe and elsewhere pay, politicians quickly call for gasoline tax cuts.
While advocates East and West may in engage in a blame game over who bears the greatest responsibility for global warming the issue of global warming must still be addressed. The planet does not make a distinction between who did what and when or between total emissions or per captia emissions—the consequences are same.
But the contradictions between First World rhetoric and reality were starkly revealed in April when a high level EU delegation visited China. According to press reports, two issues topped the agenda: trade and global warming. As the delegation toured China, lecturing the Chinese, you can be sure, on its bad habits, the New York Times ran a story entitled, Europe Turns Back to Coal, Raising Climate Fears. The article reported that…
At a time when the world’s top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, Italy’s major electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant here from oil to coal, generally the dirtiest fuel on earth.
Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent.
And Italy is not alone in its return to coal. Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are expected to put into operation about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades...
....the return now to coal even in eco-conscious Europe is sowing real alarm among environmentalists who warn that it is setting the world on a disastrous trajectory that will make controlling global warming impossible.
They are aghast at the renaissance of coal, a fuel more commonly associated with the sooty factories of Dickens novels, and one that was on its way out just a decade ago.
The moral of this story is clear: until the developed world get its own house in order, its pleas and entreaties to the developing world to reduce carbon emissions will be viewed with extreme skepticism.
The role of global labor
Combating global warming will change the way we live and work. Labor movements around the world must play a central role in creating strategies to protect the interests of workers and ordinary people. That will take global action. Instead of backing “carbon tariffs” and other measures more likely to provoke a global trade war than reduce global warming, a good starting point for non-Chinese labor and social movements to focus their fire is on the multinational corporations that have flocked to China and the developing world to outsource both production and carbon emissions. These companies are often quick to tout their efforts to reduce their “carbon footprints” in their home countries. It is time to demand that they extend those efforts to China and elsewhere. Pressure by labor and its allies could play a significant role in making this happen, and in raising awareness and supporting action in China, not only to reduce local air pollution, but also to join the global battle to reduce greenhouse gas emission.