The Optimist

Greening It Alone

The world is building a low-carbon global economy -- with or without the United States.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

It may be hard to remember amid all the news of decline, but in plenty of areas, the United States is still the world’s leader. You can’t propose global banking regulation without buy-in from Wall Street. And if you want to invade somewhere far away, it’s probably best to have America front and center, or at least ferrying troops and supplies. But when it comes to responding to the biggest global challenge of the 21st century, the United States is no longer even first among equals. And given the complete paralysis in Washington, that’s a relief.

I’m speaking about climate change, which has emerged as the most intractable issue for a U.S. Congress that apparently can’t manage anything more exciting than naming a post office without threatening the country with default. With the U.S. House of Representatives busy trying to zero out aid financing for activities related to climate change and delaying any domestic regulation of carbon dioxide emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency, it would be hard to imagine how the phrases "U.S. leadership" and "global climate change" could be used in the same sentence without the word "absent" making an appearance. To be fair to House Republicans, however, it isn’t as if two Democratic chambers and President Barack Obama did much better prior to the midterm elections — which suggests that this isn’t a problem that might just go away in 18 months.

But before you pack up the kids and move to higher ground to avoid rising sea levels, consider this: China’s fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles are already around 25 percent tougher than those in the United States. The country generated 667 terawatt-hours of electricity from hydro, wind, and nuclear electricity in 2009, a 50 percent increase on four years earlier (and 10 percent more than Brazil’s or India’s current annual electricity consumption). China already accounts for one-quarter of the world’s installed capacity of wind, small-scale hydro, biomass, solar, geothermal, and marine power facilities. And the overall amount of energy used to produce a dollar of GDP in China has dropped 5 percent every year since 1980, according to Qi Ye at the Climate Policy Initiative in Beijing.

China’s attempt at a green leap forward isn’t entirely new news — but this isn’t just a Chinese story. Developing countries as a whole accounted for two-thirds of the growth in renewable and nuclear power generating capacity worldwide between 2002 and 2008, according to my colleague David Wheeler at the Center for Global Development. The developing world is now home to more than half of the world’s renewable energy generating capacity, and it is likely to extend that lead.

Going forward, Wheeler reports that India is planning to generate 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, up from less than 2 percent today. Ten thousand megawatts of that — a little under 10 percent — would come from new solar energy installations (to put that in perspective, that’s more than total global solar photovoltaic capacity in 2007). At the U.N. global warming conference in Cancún, Mexico, last year, developing countries pledged to restrict their carbon emissions considerably more than did rich country delegations. In particular, China’s promised reductions from what would happen under "business as usual" were a lot larger than promises made by the United States. Indeed, in the U.S. case, some calculations suggest the pledge may amount to the commitment to do nothing, which sounds all too plausible.

You wouldn’t have guessed developing countries were taking the lead on counteracting climate change given the caterwauling about harm to U.S. competitiveness that accompanies discussion of greenhouse gas regulation in Washington, but it is true. They’re motivated by a mix of wanting to stave off climate change and wanting to develop renewable industries, and they benefit from energy and industrial sectors with less installed capacity as a proportion of future demand — which means less entrenched opposition to higher standards. And that’s good news, because while the United States accounts for three times China’s carbon dioxide contribution to the atmosphere to date, today China is the largest carbon emitter in the world. India and the rest of the developing world are fast climbing the ranks, as well. Without developing country leadership, we’d all be sunk (literally, in the case of Vanuatu).

What’s good news for those already baking in the tropics and getting their feet wet on low-lying island nations, though, may not be so wonderful for America. There is a strong element of self-interest in India’s and China’s investments — beyond reducing the effects of climate change on their own people, the scale of their renewable energy programs is large enough that the countries are becoming leaders in manufacturing green technologies. China is already the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and solar cells. And it isn’t just new industries. If the United States doesn’t start to catch up, it will be hard to retrofit American-designed gas-guzzling vehicles to run on the roads anywhere else — a real concern now that General Motors sells more cars in China than it does in the United States. The new mileage standards recently agreed between the White House and auto-makers would help — but (inevitably), the House of Representatives has already begun investigating whether those standards will "limit consumer choice."

Surely some will enjoy the irony that American intransigence to act on climate change — based in part on fears of global competitiveness — may itself be a cause of U.S. firms being unable to compete. But it would be better for America, and much better for the planet, if the United States started to regulate and invest toward a low-carbon future today. Even with developing country commitments at Cancún, we’re a long way from a path toward a sustainable level of global emissions, and the United States will have to be a part of that path. So most of the world would happily swap out schadenfreude for pleasant surprise were the U.S. government to act — and pay its fair share.

But the good news for the planet is that the rest of the world — including developing countries — isn’t waiting on a global agreement blessed by the United States to invest in green technologies. With the ice caps melting up north, some worry we might be heading toward a unipolar world. Thankfully, the global response to climate change looks distinctly multipolar. And at some point, if the United States doesn’t come into line, the rest of the planet will start finding ways to encourage it. One obvious response would be taxing U.S. exports to take into account their carbon footprint — an approach the United States itself has suggested with regard to its imports if it ever got its act together to tax domestic greenhouse gas emissions. At that point, years behind in investing in energy efficiency and facing significant tariffs on exports, coddled American industries would really understand what it meant to be uncompetitive.

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