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Historic Opportunity For A Cleaner, Greener World

SCMP – Updated on Feb 07, 2009

China and the United States are not only two of the world’s most important economies but also its worst polluters. The economic crisis has raised the spectre of protectionism and a trade war between them. However, an unexpected opening may put them on a more co-operative footing: climate change. China is reeling from environmental degradation that has put its economic development in jeopardy. Under former president George W. Bush, the US compromised its leadership by ignoring global warming and its potentially devastating effects. By working together, the two nations will not only help secure a brighter future for their own citizens, but for humankind too. The world desperately needs a viable treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, one that will drastically curb greenhouse gas emissions before global warming becomes irreversible. It is unlikely to succeed without China and the US on board. Negotiations have stalled despite a looming deadline. The rich countries, led by the US and the European Union, want to impose emission caps on emerging economies. But many developing nations, represented by China and India, will only accept voluntary limits and say the rich economies – as, historically, the biggest polluters – should pay for the cleanup and help them develop clean technology and alternative energy.

The latest signals from Washington may indicate a way forward. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called on China to work with the US to develop “a strong and constructive partnership” and build clean-energy economies under “a new framework”. China’s ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, reaffirmed the two nations had many shared interests in energy development and climate change. Both sides are preparing a positive atmosphere for Mrs Clinton’s East Asia tour this month, her first overseas trip since taking over America’s top diplomatic post. Beijing has previously underscored the importance it attaches to climate change as a potential flashpoint of its foreign policy by setting up a top-level group headed by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.

But meaningful co-operation has to benefit both sides. China’s transport boom is a growing environmental challenge. Beijing should make it a matter of national policy to promote hybrid and electric cars and phase out polluting vehicles. There is a huge potential market here for the car industries of the US and Japan. US carmakers are being bailed out by the federal government and are under pressure to produce not only fuel-efficient vehicles but “green” cars as well. China’s market can be a lifeline for them. China should also harness market forces to help its industries adopt alternative energy and clean-coal technology. It needs to accelerate a programme to force coal-fired power stations and factories to clean up and use energy more efficiently. Beijing is right to promote the wider use of natural gas in the richer southeast, as it has in the northwest.

But as the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis, Americans must change their
lifestyle. US President Barack Obama will embark on massive rebuilding of public infrastructure as part of an economic recovery plan. He will do well to focus on building public transport systems to break the American habit of going everywhere in gas guzzlers. Instead of encouraging the development of distant suburbs, people should live closer to cities or to where they work. China and the US must work together to foster a better environment for future generations. They must not squander this historic opportunity.

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