Two news items caught my attention this week. The first, in the journal Science, discussed China’s new “green” railway into Tibet. The arid, cold plateau is sensitive to disruption and contains many rare and unique species. To limit their impacts, builders placed periodic tunnels to provide migration corridors; routed around important wetlands; designed stations to use recycled water that will not enter natural systems; and the list goes on. The second story, in the journal Nature, records China’s latest promise to begin reducing carbon emissions through less energy intensive growth, cleaner technology, and so on. Given their lack of transparency and poor track record of honesty, it is difficult discern China’s rhetoric from it's real intention, but the signs are promising. One reason to trust them now is that, as the Nature article points out, China (and other developing nations) will be the primary losers from climate change.
The more immediate benefit of China’s environmental progress is that it removes one of the few remaining (and most desperate) arguments against the US taking action on international environmental issues, particularly climate change. The tired mantra from climate change skeptics and defeatists is that unless China/India/Brazil reduce their emissions, the impact of the US will be meaningless. This was never a good argument, and it looks more sickly everyday. The US emits more absolutely and per capita than any other nation; it and Europe are almost entirely responsible for carbon emissions to date; and for the US to complain to developing nations about economic hardships of carbon reduction sounds like a bad joke when its GDP (PPP) per capita is $43500, compared to $7600, $3700, and $8600 in China, India, and Brazil, respectively. While I applaud China’s environmental progress, and hope it is genuine, there is still much the US and other developed nations can and should do, unilaterally if necessary.