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China Carbon Truths: Authoritarian Government Makes Greenhouse Emissions Worse

Posted by on 2009/09/17. Filed under International. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Sep 17, 2009 – 5:44:32 AM

China Carbon Truths: Authoritarian Government Makes Greenhouse Emissions Worse

China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, and countries around the world from the United States to Japan are pressuring Beijing to lower emissions and to introduce an absolute cap on emissions. But asking China’s central government to impose a carbon cap is the wrong approach. Even if Beijing wanted to do so, such a decision would be almost impossible for the central government to enforce. Greater political freedoms are the key for real environmental improvements in China.

Since economic reforms began in China 30 years ago, local governments have been given wide autonomy in pursuing economic growth. One widely noted result is the inability of Beijing to implement tough planning, tax or environmental policies that might constrain that growth. To some extent, public pressures have forced the hand of local governments on environmental issues that have a direct impact on everyday quality of life air and water quality, waste disposal or food toxins, for instance.

But greenhouse gases, the most common of which is CO2, are different. Like the protection of a threatened animal or plant species, reducing greenhouse gases has little noticeable impact on the communities concerned. Reducing CO2 is rarely a pressing public priority in a country like China, where rapid development is a top goal and other pollution problems are more tangible. Add to that the fact that local governments are autonomous of top-down regulation from Beijing. In essence, the most critical government actors for controlling global carbon emissions are insulated from both top-down and bottom-up political pressures.

There are a few reasons why local governments in China may get more serious about climate change on their own, although these are probably insufficient to control emissions nationwide. One is the lucrative “clean development mechanism” administered by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under which polluters in one country can buy carbon-emission credits from another country. China is expected to rake in about 59% of the global revenues (likely worth several billion dollars, depending on carbon prices) from this mechanism through the end of 2012, according to the U.N. Local governments and their companies will get most of this revenue. There are also first-mover advantages for cities and provinces that develop the technologies that will likely prove a growth industry in future. The city of Yangzhou, for instance, is pushing ahead with a low-carbon “eco-city” development model that, unusually, includes an immediate reduction in absolute emission levels, something the national government has not embraced.

Beijing itself could take the lead by making greenhouse-gas mitigation efforts one criterion in the evaluation of local cadres, who are currently judged mainly by their economic records and ideological rectitude. In April, the State Council required that all provincial and local governments consider climate change initiatives in their economic and social development policies. But the well-known ability of local governments to evade such top-down mandates is unlikely to be any different in the case of climate-change efforts.

Better yet would be to open up political space at the local level so that citizens and advocacy groups can create a public consensus on the need for action. While Beijing talks about “public participation” in its response to climate change, so far that has meant mainly authoritarian-style efforts to educate the public and encourage greater obedience. In a few places, however, citizens and groups have been brought into the making of policy. The northeastern city of Shenyang, for instance, has been experimenting with participatory approaches to environmental policy since passing a law in 2005 under which citizens must be included in the making of all environmental laws. So far, this has meant mainly public consultations on laws, but the city also tolerates an active community of environmental nongovernmental organizations. One result: its air quality has improved faster than almost any other similar city in China.

Another approach being considered is meetings of representative groups of citizens who deliberate on the best policy approach and then deliver their findings as binding policy mandates to the government concerned known in China as minzhu kentanhui or “sincere democratic forums.” In China, experiments with this system, mainly in the city of Wenling in Zhejiang province, have demonstrated that Chinese citizens place a high priority on environmental protection when asked to rank different government projects. In one forum in Wenling in 2005, citizens selected six environmental protection projects among the top 10 projects they wanted the government to fund.

Deliberation not only expands information but also expands the sense of common responsibility on which the willingness to embrace potentially costly carbon emission programs depends. If Beijing were to start targeting environmental performance in cadre promotions and expand political freedoms that would generate social pressures, more local governments would have an incentive to embrace this bottom-up approach to emissions control.

Despite these signs of progress on locally driven initiatives, many foreigners continue to misunderstand the causes of China’s environmental-policy failures. Most foreign assistance, whether government-to-government or private sector, has replicated the top-down approach by giving money to Beijing. This aid has centered on helping central bureaucrats to develop national policy, transferring technology to energy users, or improving policy monitoring.

That’s a mistake. While some well-known commentators have praised China’s authoritarian approach to climate change, the truth is that Beijing is failing on the environment precisely because of the lack of political freedoms. Rather than leaning even more heavily on Beijing, the critical need is to invest in approaches that will hold local governments accountable to their citizens. Only then can China really tackle CO2.

Mr. Gilley is assistant professor of political science at Portland State University and principal investigator of the Portland State University-Lanzhou University Global Warming Initiative.


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