NEW DELHI, India — There are nearly 1.3 billion people in this swarming democracy, where over 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the general election last May. A few of them took me aside this week to express surprise at the puzzle that is the American electorate and its national leadership.
It’s easy to see why.
On November 4, despite the most money ever spent in a national election ($US 3.7 billion), just over a third of eligible American voters — the lowest percentage since 1942 — felt it necessary to cast a ballot to influence the country’s management.
But just eight days later, on November 12, the president of the United States reached a momentous accord with the president of China to cap greenhouse gas emissions and do a whole lot more for Mother Earth and its human inhabitants.
Though viewed here in India, and by most observers globally as a an environmental accord, the pact’s six major provisions boil down to a very new international economic development strategy. The agreement sets out two politically arduous but technically achievable goals:
1. Turn major industries, particularly the institutions that supply electricity, into technologically advanced, water-conserving, low-carbon, pollution-avoiding guardians of environmental safety and human well-being.
2. Redesign cities to be much cleaner, much greener, much healthier, and much more efficient users of water, energy, land, and other natural resources.
In effect, the agreement sets out to either convert or overrun skeptics in the carbon-based industries, and their allies in government and finance. It does so by encouraging collaboration between the two largest economies, and the crowd of inventors and practitioners in both countries, to much more quickly put into place new tools, new practices, and especially new markets to contend with radically different ecological and economic conditions.
Temporarily putting aside political realities in both nations, and the skepticism fostered by decades of reporting in the U.S., and more recently in China, the two nations appear to be trying to do something truly significant.
President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping, and their aides, very clearly recognize the new malevolence displayed by Planet Earth in the 21st century. They seem to be looking at the searing storm of environmental and economic transition square in the eye, and presenting a concerted response that comes straight from the shoulder. The two leaders, in sum, seem resolute about aggregating achievable steps in technology and policy like a wall against danger. The changes the agreement calls for in water conservation, efficiency, clean energy, green equipment and the like, are the bricks. In short, the two leaders are trying to build a new foundation for industries and cities and people to survive and thrive in a perilous ecological age.
LEADERS THINK BIG
Not until last week has such a useful and transparent call to action come from the highest reaches of the governments of the United States and China. Unlike the 20th century, when so many people died by the barrel of a gun, massive industrial accidents like the 1984 chemical explosion that killed nearly 16,000 people here in Bhopal, and man-instigated holocaust and genocide, the 21st century’s biggest threats to human life are acts of nature that seem unnatural — floods, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, pestilence, and new plagues. All stem from a combination of soaring population growth and resource waste that is producing rising costs, political intransigence, and surprising civic indifference.
The most basic details of the climate aspects of the agreement call for reducing, by 2025, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels. China, for its part, put the first-ever limit on its greenhouse gas emissions, asserting that they will reach a peak in 2030 and that non-fossil fueled sources will make up a fifth of its electrical generating capacity.
The U.S. should easily reach its target. In 2005, U.S. greenhouse emissions were over 7 billion metric tons a year, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. Reaching the agreement’s goals will drop U.S. greenhouse emissions to roughly 5 billion metric tons a year. Last year, greenhouse emissions in the U.S. dropped to around 6.2 billion metric tons as buildings, cars, planes become more energy efficient, and natural gas, wind, and solar power replace coal for generating electrical power.
RESISTANCE FROM SAME PLACES
Predictably and sadly Republican lawmakers last week criticized the agreement as a risk to the American economy. Though conservative U.S. legislators have fought every previous big American environmental measure for the same reason, the economic data shows a different story. The American GDP, $16 trillion this year in constant dollars, is more than three times larger than it was in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated. America, by the way, is a lot cleaner than it was then.
The Chinese greenhouse gas limits are, flat out, underwhelming. Under the agreement China can continue escalate the levels of carbon it pours into the air before it reaches a peak in 2030. 2030?! This year China is producing and consuming 3.6 billion metric tons of coal — almost four times as much as the United States. Chinese oal consumption is growing 100 million metric tons annually. Unless there is a sharp change in policy, coal consumption in China could reach 5.2 billion metric tons a year. It’s almost unimaginable.
I’m told by James Fallows, a correspondent and expert China observer, that it’s the first-of-its-kind limit on emissions that China agreed to set that’s important. My good friend and colleague, Jennifer Turner of the Wilson Center and a collaborator with Circle of Blue in this work, agrees.
“The efforts that the Chinese are teeing up to get even more aggressive on coal are significant,” Jennifer wrote to me in an email. “They are the more boring policy/finance/regulatory stuff that will really determine if China will just make this a business as usual peak or something more aggressive. Lots of folks among my contacts are saying that China can likely hit a peak sooner.”
CIRCLE OF BLUE’s ROLE
The water conservation and use provisions of the agreement also are globally significant, as well as personally gratifying to those of us at Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center.
The agreement includes two provisions to secure freshwater supplies in energy production — the so-called “energy-water nexus” that Circle of Blue has reported on globally since 2010.
The two nations are 1) investing in research to improve efficiency and conservation in water supply for energy generation, and 2) developing a carbon sequestration demonstration project in China to put produced water from pools deep beneath the surface and displaced by CO2 storage to good use.
Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center played a big, big role in elevating the contest between rising demand for energy (second largest water consumer in both countries) and diminishing freshwater supplies in our 2010 ChokePoint: US project, and our 2011 and 2012 ChokePoint: China projects. The Wilson Center and Circle of Blue collaborated to bring our findings to civic, academic, government, and NGO audiences in both countries, including speaking tours in China in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Clearly, leaders of both nations took note. India, the third largest producer of coal, needs to be next.
— Keith Schneider