Planet Gore

Street-corner Global-warming Counsel

Urgh, certain elements of this item in Sunday’s Washington Post, “Five Myths About China’s Economy,” caused me some molar-grinding. And I am not alone. I have seen a draft letter to the editor from one distinguished economist making in piquant fashion one key point also made below, and if it slips past the editors it will be at least a small victory.


I do in fact have a longer-form response to the sort of numbskullery addressed below, and it comes out a week from today. Not to do a Gabbo-style buildup on you — Iain Murray having first leaked specifics if with little fanfare here last week — but you can’t find out what’s in it yet. Soon, dear reader.


In the meantime, a fisking.

4. China’s hunger for resources is sucking the world dry and making major contributions to global warming.

It’s true that China is now the biggest producer of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. And it’s true that China uses more energy to produce a dollar of its GDP than most other countries, including the United States. But on a per-person basis, China’s use of resources is still modest compared with that of rich countries.

Yes. China is, as you make clear elsewhere, a fairly poor country. But a full-stop was warranted after making the point — China is substantially less energy efficient than we are, period — thereby saving the effort of manufacturing an apology for China’s waste. The issue actually isn’t rich countries, it’s the poverty and other inefficiencies found in the Chinese system. Complaining that, huh, richer people use more stuff than poor people! — if wildly more efficiently — does not change this.

For instance, despite its rapid increase in car use, China consumes about 8 million barrels of oil a day. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels a day. Put another way, China, with nearly a quarter of the world’s population, accounts for less than one-tenth of the world’s oil consumption. The United States, with only 5 percent of world population, accounts for nearly a quarter of global oil consumption. Whose appetite is really the bigger problem?

Once again China’s underdevelopment is a virtue. But, ummm . . . we produce about a quarter of the world’s wealth production, which among modern economies, oddly enough, correlates pretty well with hydrocarbon consumption. So, let’s pressure-test one’s devotion to citing this disparity between a state’s wealth creation and other contributions: Does anyone at WaPo object to the U.S paying a quarter of the UN’s budget — on precisely that same basis of producing about a quarter of the world’s wealth? I thought not. Run the numbers and you see we are disproportionately greenhouse-gas efficient — remember that whole “China uses more energy to produce a dollar of its GDP than most other countries, including the United States” thing? If the rest of the world were on a par with us, we would achieve Kyoto harmony overnight! In sum, therefore, we aren’t actually “the problem” — unless the problem is actually affluence, which the author dares not say.

Moreover, unlike the United States, China has recognized that it cannot let its fossil-fuel appetite grow forever and is working hard to improve efficiency. [O]n average, coal-fired power plants are more efficient in China than in the United States.

This reflects remarkable ignorance of some variety — I’m not settled on which yet. The author does not seem to realize that China is building coal-fired power plants, one a week according to some estimates, while our byzantine patchwork of a Clean Air Act has worked to encourage operators to drive their old plants into the ground rather than replace them — because to clear the necessary legal hurdles to build a new one here requires something barely short of divine intervention. (Oh, dear, maybe Tom Friedman’s right and we need to be China if just for a little while.) So, yes, newer plants are more efficient than 40-year-old ones. I would welcome this gentleman (and the Post) arguing in favor of the U.S. scrapping the impediments making this so difficult so that we can then build new coal plants, too.


Street-corner global-warming counsel (and economics) is generally a harebrained mishmash of talking points that don’t do too well under a moment’s scrutiny. One useful antidote is on its way and, fortunately, it’s not nearly so dreary as that sounds.


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