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Greatest Challenge China Poses May Be on Climate

March 8, 2023
CLARK'S REMARKS: While tensions continue to grow over economic and geopolitical rivalries, we had best not forget about our shared environmental responsibilities.

"China, China, China." 

It’s all over the news these days. And the current mood in the U.S. seems more and more jingoistic. 

Of course, we still read and hear about China as a major trade partner. According to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, China was our nation's’ third-largest in 2021. In that year, 8.6% of total U.S. exports of $1.8 trillion were exported to China, and 17.9% of total U.S. imports of $2.8 trillion were imported from China. 

At the same time, however, China is also an economic competitor, especially for human capital. Both the U.S. and China strive to sustain economic growth; secure supply chains; create robust science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) sectors; and develop workforces for industries of the future. And, of course, China remains a growing challenge to U.S. national security interests (and it’s not just balloons and TikTok). Says U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, "The People's Republic of China is the only competitor out there with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the power to do so."

But you know what we aren’t reading or hearing a lot about these days, that was big news not so long ago?  Climate change. 

According to the World Bank’s 2022 China Country Climate and Development Report, “China's development and climate change are deeply and increasingly intertwined. The country is both a contributor to rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is severely affected by its adverse impacts... Alongside other larger emitters, China's contribution to reducing global climate risks is therefore crucial.”

And yet, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Global Energy Monitor (GEM) recently reported that Chinese coal power plant permitting, construction starts, and new projects all significantly increased last year. Incredibly, new permits for coal power plants were issued at a rate of two per week (!), reaching the highest level since 2015. To put that in perspective, the coal power capacity project under construction in China last year was 600% of the rest of the world’s combined capacity.

Think about that.

So, as we now push harder here to reduce U.S. carbon emissions, admittedly with some misguided policies, the U.S. – still the second largest carbon emitter in the world (5.0 billion mCO2e) behind China’s 11.5 billion mCO2e in 2021 – nevertheless has managed to reduce its emissions by 12% since 2010. 

Clearly, however, we also need to develop foreign policies that will genuinely encourage our trading partners to reduce their carbon emissions, as well. After all, we can only blame so much of the world's climate woes on West Virginia’s hard working coal miners!

A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. He can be reached at [email protected].