Bending the Linear toward the Circular
Can and Will China and the US Take Climate Change Seriously?
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Can and Will China and the US Take Climate Change Seriously?

The world’s two largest economies have vast wealth but lack the political will to take drastic action
Can and Will China and the US Take Climate Change Seriously?

China and the United States are the world’s two largest emitters of CO2 and other GHGs. Together they produce almost half of the world’s emissions – the number currently stands at 45%. They must both work assiduously to address these problems, and with as much cooperation as possible.

China actually produces more than twice the emissions of the US, approaching 12 million metric tons per year compared to 5 million or so by the US. But the US still produces emissions at more than twice the level of China on a per-person basis – about 16 tons per person versus 8. (Only a few oil kingdoms, Canada, and Australia produce more by this measure.)

So what’s the status quo? What are the two behemoths – which also have the world’s two largest economies, with the US in first place – doing, and what will they do?

Carbon Neutrality, Sometime in the Future
China’s government has pledged carbon neutrality by 2060. It’s also said its peak emissions will occur sometime before 2030. The US has pledged carbon neutrality by 2050. Its Congress has just passed legislation billed as the most significant in decades, even as it is littered with support of carbon-fuel power generation. Its proposed $369 billion expenditure to address climate change represents less than 2% of the country’s annual GDP.

Both nations’ commitments are deemed unworthy by Climate Action Tracker, a consortium based in Cologne, Germany that focuses on “independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action and measures it against the globally agreed Paris Agreement.”

Specifically, the group places about 40 countries it’s surveyed into four categories: “critically insufficient” (containing Russia and Iran, among others), “highly insufficient” (containing China, India, Indonesia, Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, among others), “insufficient” (containing the US, the EU, and Japan, among others), and “almost sufficient” (containing the UK, Norway, and Kenya, among others). None of the countries surveyed is deemed worthy of being “sufficient,” which would mean likely success in meeting the 1.5C degree warming goal outlined in the Paris Agreement.

Toward an Emissions Reduction Challenge (ERC) Index
Within the Climate 4.0 initiative at the Smart Nations Foundation, we’ve created an Emissions Reduction Challenge (ERC) Index, surveying 143 countries based on our foundational Tau Global Research work on IT and socioeconomic development. We’re more optimistic than the Climate Action Tracker, although it’s critical to emphasize that any projections made today may look tragically silly 50 and 100 years from now.

We outline several color-coded tiers, based on a nation’s current emissions output and its perceived ability to address significant change given its socioeconomic conditions and government. The latter aspect is critical –  it raises the concept of Digital Readiness – if a nation does not have the social conditions, enlightened government, and overall societal desire to improve, then progress will not occur. It seems intuitive that open, democratic societies will be the most likely to possess the Digital Readiness needed for real change, the occasional small, heavy-handed experiment such as Singapore notwithstanding.

Our ratings integrate numerous factors into a single, natural logarithm that places them into tiers that each represent a challenge about 2.7X greater than the tier below it. The ratings are nominal, not relative, so smaller nations tend to have smaller challenges. Thus our most optimistic tier, color-coded green, represents the least difficult challenge and includes New Zealand, Costa Rica, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bhutan, and a few others.

Yellow-coded nations, facing moderately difficult challenges, include much of South America, much of Northern Europe, Taiwan, and Tanzania, among others. The red-coded tier, represent very difficult challenges, includes Japan, South Korea, much of Southeast Asia and Europe (including Germany), and some of South America, among others.

We’re in Dire Straits
Then there is the final tier, color-coded purple, representing the most dire challenges. Four of the Big Five emissions producers – China, the US, India, and Russia – are in this tier, along with Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, and others.

The presence of so many very large producers in the purple tier skews the entire world purple, in our view. Perhaps we’re not so optimistic after all.

We Have the Money, But Not the Will
The world’s two largest economies each have vast wealth (in their own ways) to address their emissions challenge, but also lack the political will (in their own ways) to take the drastic action that may be needed to forestall serious global warming.

Anecdotally, we can listen to American consumers scream bloody murder about $5/gallon gasoline, something that causes discomfort but less so than 130-degree summers or 12-month hurricane and wildfire cycles. That both China and the US have pushed out their carbon-neutral goals to decades down the road looks like a game of kicking the can more than a serious, ironclad commitment to do something about the climate-change challenge.

Non-Cooperation Agreement
The US and China are not cooperating with one another very well at the moment. China’s Premier and undisputed leader Xi Jinping seems like more of an ideological nationalist rather than a problem-solver, as many, including The Economist, are fond of pointing out. His recent, belligerent words and actions over Taiwan, as reported in The Asia Times, for example, show a person with his eye on anything but climate change.

Additionally, that mainland China has had a functioning democracy for only 36 years (between the Qing Empire’s fall in 1912 until the Communist takeover in 1948) of an approximate 4,700 years of recorded history doesn’t bode well for optimistic, Jeffersonian Americans. That the US is in the midst of its own, self-inflicted crisis of democracy at the moment reflects Americans’ own internal problems as well.

Even so, the work continues, by likeminded individuals, and individuals in companies, governments, NGOs, and other non-profits worldwide to achieve real change.