Because of the country’s size and influence, China’s environmental concerns are no longer simply its own. China has overtaken the United States as the world’s top emitter of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. In 2006, China emitted approximately 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, approximately one-fifth of the world’s total.
And while China’s per capita emissions are currently very low (about one-fifth that of the US), they are expected to rise significantly as an estimated 350 million people move from the countryside to the cities over the next 20 years. The Chinese Academy of Sciences predicts that during that time, the country’s CO2 emissions may double or more unless dramatic measures are taken.
Who should pay?
Faced with such prospects — as well as a glaring international spotlight before the Copenhagen climate conference in December — the Chinese government has in recent months devoted both more rhetoric and real attention to the challenges of combating climate change.
While Beijing hopes for a global reputation boost by highlighting some green measures already undertaken, the scope of its international commitments will be motivated chiefly by domestic concerns — by the tug-of-war between political priorities and interests, a struggle often overlooked by those who see China only as an efficient top-down monolith.
As in the United States and elsewhere, business interests vie for influence, but the dynamics of the conversation are particular to China, where industry is composed of a unique mix of state-owned enterprises, foreign joint-ventures, and private companies, all with different priorities and levers for reaching government officials.