Olympic chances

The Olympic Games offer China more than just the opportunity to host a green sporting event. The country should seize the moment to form an alliance with the US to combat climate change, says Orville Schell.

As the 2008 Olympics approach, China finds itself in the throes of a Herculean campaign to make the Olympics not only a resounding organisational success, but also a “green” Games. However, a whole host of intractable environmental problems threaten these efforts. Daunting challenges are presented by contaminated foods, depleted reservoirs, polluted water and severe air-pollution.

Because of their desire to have a better material standard of living for their people, until recently China’s leaders have welcomed almost any kind of “development” and tolerated the added toxic load involved. But recently, president Hu Jintao has begun to emphasise what he calls “scientific development”, a code word for a more sustainable approach to growth. The central Chinese leadership, although still eschewing the developed world’s calls for “carbon caps,” has evinced a growing awareness at the ways in which unbridled development is depleting natural resources and poisoning the country. But, as one Chinese official recently told me: “We cannot act alone. You must help us remove America as our excuse for not dealing with climate change.”

Developed countries seem unaware of China’s bind. They all too often complain about the loss of jobs to Chinese factories while quietly overlooking a dirty secret: China has become a dumping ground for ever more of the industrial pollution that is the unavoidable consequence of our own rapacious material consumption. Its environmental downfall, even if willingly embraced until now, has been our environmental salvation.

But it would appear that China is now reaching a tipping point on environmental issues. And whereas several years ago there was relatively little said about climate change, now top leaders in Beijing have begun to cautiously speak out, although they do not always appear quite sure what to do about the problem.

Indeed, all around China, reasons for concern have begun to manifest themselves in aberrant weather patterns. This summer, while the North China Plain was suffering a drought, the worst torrential downpour in recorded history hit Shandong province’s capital city, Jinan. Then, in South China’s Guangdong province, the city of Zhanjiang received almost 30 inches (76.2 centimetres) of rainfall in 24 hours, the most severe storm in 200 years of record keeping. At the same time, rather alarming statistics keep coming out in regard to the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau. They are now said to be melting at a rate of 7% annually.

Back when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, China signed on only as a “developing nation”, which meant that it was exempted from caps on carbon emissions. The United States “unsigned” under President Bush. By absenting themselves from this fragile international regime, the world’s two major contributors of greenhouse gases came close to crippling this incipient global effort.

As lamentable as America’s ongoing truancy has been, it now presents Chinese leaders with an opportunity. At this penultimate moment before the Olympic Games, as the world casts around for some possible course, China’s leaders have a chance not only to make the Olympics truly “green”, but to help lead the world out of the climate change impasse into which it is now falling. Indeed, there could be no more effective way for Beijing to begin calming critics and protesters who now threaten to gather at the Games than to begin moving into the vacuum left by the Bush administration to assert initiative in global struggle against climate change. For without the participation of China and the US, there will be no remedy to this urgent threat.

What is needed is a major, extra-governmental effort similar to “The Interdependencies on Energy and Climate Security for China and Europe Project” now working a similar plan for the EU and China. Recognising this, and with an eye towards a new US presidency in 2009, a consortium of concerned specialists from the Asia Society, The Brookings Institution, Environmental Defense and the Council on Foreign Relations have recently come together in New York City to begin drafting a “road map” for collaborative Sino-US action. By putting together a high-level task force of scientists, CEOs, civil society leaders, academics and political figures in both the US and China, the project specifically aims to catalyse cooperation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions resulting from energy use, especially the continued reliance on coal to power our respective economies. 

What is so tantalizingly promising about such a Sino-US effort is that should it attain critical mass, not only would it help keep alive the hope for a solution to the daunting challenge of global warming, but it could also inject a whole new foundation of common interest into the often rocky Sino-US relationship, which is, after all, the most importantly bilateral relationship in the world today.

If the Olympic Games could become a launching pad for such a bilateral effort and at the same time trigger a more environmentally friendly and durable set of central governmental policies within China itself, then history would, indeed, remember 2008 not only as the first “green Olympic Games,” but as one of the catalyzing moments in history when the world’s two major powers took notice of both their national interests, and the world’s common interest, to finally rally in a collaborative manner to solve one of the world’s most formidable challenges.

Orville Schell is director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society and a longtime writer on China.

Homepage photo by George Washington