Friday, March 28, 2008

Finding Silver in the Cloud of CO2

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

China has taken the lead as the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide. Actually, according to some estimates, that title should have been granted in 2006, a year in which China’s CO2 emissions increased 9%. More important than the quickness with which China managed to pass the United States for this dubious honor is that speed with which emissions of CO2 are increasing. That is exponential – in the mathematically correct sense of the word – and 9% per year is a very big number.

The implications of this for global greenhouse gases are staggering. Were China to continue at a 9% exponential growth rate, and every other country hold to current output levels, worldwide output of CO2 would double from the levels of today in about 18 years. Of course what everyone is looking for is a way to decrease total CO2 output. If the rest of the world manages to reduce CO2 production by 5% per year then world output won’t double for 22 years. Little comfort that.

These calculations are very back-of-the-envelope, though these days it is an email-envelope. Others, with fancier, or at least more convoluted, math have concluded that we have at more like 35 years to a doubling. But while developed countries are looking at, if not embracing, technology to reduce carbon emissions, the developing world is trying to develop. When those lesser developed countries were economically tiny, how they developed did not much matter, but it does now. China is not going away, India is riding close behind, and the rest of the underdeveloped world would love to be on the same trajectory. The pressures to grow economically are stronger than those to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, most importantly, they are driven from within. If good things are going to happen for the environment, it will take more than thoughtful science and demands from the international community.

My purpose in pointing this out is not to be an alarmist, however strongly the warning bells may be clanging. Rather, I am looking for opportunity – a silver lining in the billowing clouds of coal smoke and concrete dust. The disquieting rate of emissions growth in China is the result of widespread development in places with limited access to modern technology. China has an impressive educational system that is churning out bright people who can do amazing things, but those amazing things are strongly focused on the big cities, often with an eye toward producing for the developed world. When it comes to something like turning coal into electricity in rural Fujian, there is not a great deal of intellectual firepower at hand. The plants built are inefficient and use technology that was out-of-date when it was developed in the 1950s. The Soviet influence on China has not disappeared entirely.

Turning such dirty inefficient power plants into somewhat less dirty and less inefficient plants would have a huge impact. Orchestrating the construction of clean and efficient new plant would have a bigger impact still. So what does it take to get high-tech into areas that people with skills and smarts are desperately trying to get out of? Engineers without borders?

Perhaps this is an opportunity for developed countries to export workers, instead of jobs. Engineers and skilled construction and industrial workers, together with the technology they bring, cooperating with the local people now on the job might be able to produce wonders. Such efforts would, in part, need to be a sort of foreign aid but China is sitting on a stunning accumulated trade surplus that they might be willing to part with for the right reason. Since the money would be spent on higher quality infrastructure, with a fairly limited direct impact on the domestic economy, the inflation and economic overheating pressures would be minimal.

There really is an opportunity to improve not only global environmental footprint, but the long run quality of life in China, and other developing countries. In addition, the demand for engineers and skilled production workers to support such projects will keep developed countries in their own economic games by improving the skill base. Any shared cultural understanding that might result would simply be a bonus.

The world is facing some interesting, and probably difficult, times. We can all defend our corner and push for others to reform, but the results are dismally predictable. Alternatively, we can put down the gloves, drop some of our ideological baggage, and scratch our heads together. Freely providing technology to China is as likely to be an anathema to American politicians as accepting significant foreign stewardship on development is to Chinese politicians. And China and the US are far from having a monopoly on political vitriolic. Still, with so much at stake, it seems like it would be worth the indigestion. #

Also by Larry Mongoss:

Paterson the Blind New Governor
Also on Literal and Literary Truth
Disagreeing with Smart People
Decreasing Readership among the Corn-Fed

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