The Fate of the Planet May Depend on China Keeping Its Word

Rob Garver

President Obama spoke to world leaders this afternoon as they convened in New York to try to come to some sort of agreement on how to address the increasing threat of global climate change. “No nation can meet this global threat alone,” he said in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly.

There’s no arguing his point that no single nation can stop climate change on its own. But there is one nation that could prevent significant progress on the effort to reduce greenhouse gas output: China. That’s why the single biggest question about humanity’s ability to protect the planet from the worst effects of rising temperatures has little to do with what happens at the U.N. today.

Related: CHART – How Climate Change Is Affecting Your Region

The real question is whether China will keep its word on reducing emissions.

China now accounts for 28 percent of global carbon emissions, twice as much as the next largest single country, the United States, and more than the combined emissions of the entire European Union. The growth of China’s economy over the coming years could, without dramatic changes to the country’s energy consumption, push its share of global carbon emissions even higher.

Even if the rest of the world were to start slashing emissions tomorrow, absent real action from China the effects on climate change would be insufficient to avoid major global disruption in the coming decades.

However, in an announcement little noticed in the West, the Chinese government last week announced a hugely ambitious plan to cut the energy-intensity of its GDP. Xie Zhenhua, an official with the National Development and Reform Commission vowed that by 2020 the country will have slashed carbon dioxide emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product by 40 to 45 percent.

Related: U.S. Military Bases Threatened by Climate Change

Further, the government promised to continue with a reforestation program designed to plant more than 150,000 square miles of forest in the country – trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide, preventing it from escaping into the atmosphere.

While it’s far from clear that China can meet such an ambitious goal, there are at least two good reasons to hope it will.

The first is that, to be frank, oppressive, centrally managed states in which leaders have little concern for public perception and where the public has little recourse to challenge policy can change the way they do business much more quickly than a liberal democracy can.

The second is that China has a compelling reason to take decisive action: Its current policies are killing its citizens and making its cities unlivable, even if the government won’t publicly acknowledge it.

The decision China makes, however, will have effects far beyond its own cities and its own people.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “To avoid a looming national public health crisis and an imminent danger to the world's climate, China must act soon.”

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