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Friday, December 11, 2009

Janet Larsen, our Director of Research, has been at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this week. During this time, she's posted articles on the National Journal's special COP15 website. Here is her first blog.

Economy, Food Drives China's Energy Sector

by Janet Larsen

In the last several years since China surpassed the United States to become the world’s number one emitter of carbon dioxide, it has become fashionable to point a finger at China for building a new coal-fired power plant every week. There’s no question that new coal is a problem. But as Congressman Markey notes, China is doing far more to green its economy than most give it credit for. And if the United States does not wake up to that reality and get fully on board the green economy train, it will lose market share, job creation potential, and a ride into the 21st century energy economy.

Rather than focus on China’s official pronouncements, look at what the country is doing. Today many U.S.-made cars are banned for sale in China because they are too inefficient to meet China’s stricter fuel economy standards. Some 27 million Chinese homes have rooftop solar water heaters. China leads the world in production of solar photovoltaics that can convert sunlight directly in electricity. Most of those solar panels are sold internationally. China supplied a quarter of U.S. solar panel imports in 2007; since then the share has likely climbed, representing manufacturing jobs being created in China rather than in the United States.

With the production of electricity from the wind, China is set to blow by the United States within the next year or so. China’s Wind Base program is creating 6 massive complexes of over 10,000 megawatts each, which together would double the early 2008 wind power capacity of the entire world. Chinese officials who have been bullish on wind energy supplying a growing share of China’s power were bolstered by a report by Chinese and U.S. scientists published this year in the journal Science, which revealed that the country’s wind potential was seven times larger than its current total electricity consumption. Chinese manufacturers are gearing up to meet the new demand at home and abroad. Last month’s announcement that a new wind project in Texas, which would be partially financed with U.S. stimulus package funds, planned to import Chinese-made turbines provided a glimpse of how the scenario could play out if the U.S. does not do more to foster its domestic renewable energy industries.

That China has a vested interest in renewable energy for economic reasons is clear. But China also has high stakes in preserving a stable climate for a more fundamental reason: food security. Global warming poses a major threat to China’s food supplies. And food security is an incredibly sensitive issue in China since nearly all high-level government officials are themselves survivors of the 1959-61 famine when 30 million Chinese people starved to death.

Agriculture’s 11,000-year existence has been a time of remarkable climate stability. With higher temperatures, droughts can become more prevalent, crop yields suffer, and glacier-fed rivers could periodically run dry. A report last week from China’s Meteorological Administration noted that higher temperatures would shrink yields of food staples like rice and wheat. Already we are seeing faster melting of the mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau that feed Asia’s major rivers during the dry season. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has noted that with future warming two-thirds of China’s glaciers could disappear by mid-century. Earth Policy Institute president Lester Brown warns that because China is the world’s leading producer of both wheat and rice, “the vanishing of mountain glaciers in Asia represents the biggest threat to the world food supply that we have ever seen.”

While this may seem far removed from the concerns in the U.S. Congress, with China now our banker, holding some $800 billion in U.S. Treasury securities, the United States can’t very well withhold food exports. Were China to turn to the world market for substantial grain imports, food prices everywhere would rise, driving hunger up even further.

The economic incentives for leading rather than lagging in renewable energy and efficiency are compelling enough, but food security is the trump card for why no country can ignore the urgency of stabilizing climate.

This blog was initially posted on December 7, 2009, on the National Journal UN Climate Change Conference blog.

Posted by Reah Janise on 12/11 at 08:24 AM


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