How Congress’s drive to stop global warming is fueling China’s drive to out-compete the U.S.

I’m not sure which deceased economic crusader is spinning faster in his grave, Adam Smith or Mao Zedong, but it’s hard not to notice that the invisible hand is getting more work in China these days than nearly anywhere else on Earth. Talk about your climate change.

In fact, the People’s Republic of China was the eighth-fastest expanding economy in the world last year, with a real growth rate of 9.8 percent. A nation run by dedicated communists accomplished that mostly through private-sector industrialization. Simultaneously China passed the United States to become the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter, with total emissions estimated in a U.C. Berkeley study to increase 11 percent per year.

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In Washington, however, the thunder of our global warming debate is so loud that China’s emissions get scant attention and the surging economic development that produces them gets none at all. The Democrats’ American Clean Energy and Security Act mentions China just once in a thousand pages of text. Specifically, it provides that an annual report is made to Congress on China’s participation in climate negotiations. That’s it.

Maybe the lack of interest is because we’ve heard from former Vice President Gore and many other global warming activists that the Chinese would fall in line behind us if Americans set an example by swallowing hard and drafting our own households and workers to fight the war on global warming. Republicans don’t buy it, and we attempted to suspend the cap-and-trade elements of the Democrats’ legislation if China showed no interest in drafting its own people and cutting its own emissions. Evidently Mr. Gore and his allies have less confidence in Chinese followership than they make out, because we lost on a party-line vote.

Here’s what’s wrong with that: Beijing has made impressive advances in energy efficiency over the past few decades, in large part by developing the necessary technology. Oxford Analytica reports that during the 1980s and 1990s, the amount of energy used to produce one unit of GDP in China declined more than 60 percent. But don’t think for a second that China did it out of any concern over global warming. Their interests lay with a more familiar, thoroughly capitalist concept — the acquisition of wealth. Chinese officials logically concluded that the more efficient they are, the less production will cost and the more profit they will earn.

China’s need for electricity to power its roaring economic expansion has been met largely by coal. The World Bank says China burns more than 2 billion tons each year, about a third of the world’s total coal consumption, and that more than half of their coal is used for electricity generation. Analysts also say that under the current Five Year Plan — China’s 11th and prospectively its most successful — the central government’s goal is for the nation to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 percent before 2010.

On top of everything else, China continues to laugh off calls for establishing a carbon dioxide cap of their own, instead relying on a convenient, “it’s-our-turn-to-industrialize” strategy that shifts financial responsibility to Europe and America. The Chinese emphasize, as they just did in the Group of 8 summit in Italy, that they have no plans for implementing carbon dioxide capping policies. Todd Stern, the Obama administration’s special envoy on climate change, came home from a visit to China and explained it plainly as it was possible for a good diplomat to say: “We don’t expect China to take a national cap at this stage.”

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The U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change won’t be of much help. Since the 2007 Bali Action Talks, UNFCCC officials have settled on the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as basic policy, excusing the Third World from any expectations that they’ll need to reduce their emissions. Despite all that, hardly a day passes that you don’t hear a Democrat eagerly and naively hope that just because the U.S. follows the UNFCCC, China will, too.

It seems to me that President Hu Jintao will be the one smiling widest if the day comes that President Obama signs the Democrats’ cap-and-trade legislation. After that, energy-intensive U.S. businesses will have two choices: Close up shop or go overseas, probably to China. The EPA has been cautioned about the prospect of U.S. job leakage rates hitting 20 percent, and the perverse possibility that a fifth of developed-country emissions cuts will become developing country emissions as work leaves here and starts there.

I’m concerned that we’re giving China a ticket to become the world’s greatest free rider, enjoying all of the benefits that developed countries enjoy without having to share any burden, and challenging American economic dominance in a way that hasn’t been done by anybody since before World War II.

Mao once said that “China’s road to modernization will be built on the principles of diligence and frugality. Nor will it be legitimate to relax if, 50 years later, modernization is realized on a mass scale.” He didn’t say it would be at America’s expense, but self-imposed limits on our prosperity make it look like the strange day when communist capitalism threatens to overtake American productivity is closer than anybody thought.


Barton is the ranking member on House Energy and Commerce Committee