China and the "Dirty Secret" of Climate Policy:

China is currently the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and will soon become Numero Uno. Its emissions are expected to surpass those of the United States within the next few years -- perhaps as early as 2009. But Chinese officials are unwilling to provide leadership on global climate change policy, as the New York Times reports.

Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said China was willing to contribute to an international effort to combat global warming but placed the primary responsibility on richer, developed nations that have been polluting for much longer.

"It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per capita emissions," she said, adding that developed countries have responsibilities for global warming "that cannot be shirked.

China is not opposed to emission reductions, it is just unwilling to let such concerns hamper its rapid industrialization.

China is hardly the only nation to take this view. While E.U. nations talk a good game about the need to control greenhouse gas emissions, they have yet to adopt and enforce meaningful emission controls, and most European nations appear unlikely to emit their emission reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. This is the "dirty secret" of climate policy, as Robert Samuelson explains in today's Washington Post:

The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution. About 80 percent of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas), the main sources of man-made greenhouse gases. Energy use sustains economic growth, which -- in all modern societies -- buttresses political and social stability. Until we can replace fossil fuels or find practical ways to capture their emissions, governments will not sanction the deep energy cuts that would truly affect global warming. . . .

Anyone who honestly examines global energy trends must reach these harsh conclusions. In 2004, world emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2, the main greenhouse gas) totaled 26 billion metric tons. Under plausible economic and population assumptions, CO2 emissions will grow to 40 billion tons by 2030, projects the International Energy Agency. About three-quarters of the increase is forecast to come from developing countries, two-fifths from China alone. . . .

Nor will existing technologies, aggressively deployed, rescue us. The IEA studied an "alternative scenario" that simulated the effect of 1,400 policies to reduce fossil fuel use. Fuel economy for new U.S. vehicles was assumed to increase 30 percent by 2030; the global share of energy from "renewables" (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass) would quadruple, to 8 percent. The result: by 2030, annual carbon dioxide emissions would rise 31 percent instead of 55 percent. The concentration levels of emissions in the atmosphere (which presumably cause warming) would rise.

Samuelson's answer is more aggressive research and development of carbon-control technologies, and possibly an energy tax of some sort as well. I am skeptical of government subsidies -- and believe federal efforts to pick winners and losers in energy markets have already done too much to screw up energy markets -- so I think we should consider offering prizes instead. I have also argued that there is a strong case for developed countries to subsidize the deployment of low-emitting technologies and climate adaptation measures in developing countries (see here and here), assuming that such measures can be undertaken in a more effective manner than traditional foreign aid.