Science, economics and even the Holy See have failed to persuade the U.S. Congress to tackle climate change. Now, perhaps an even more powerful influence may come to bear: the determination not to be outdone by China.
On Friday, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases announced it will begin a national cap-and-trade program in 2017. It will limit total emissions and let individual emitters, including power, steel, chemicals and other industrial producers, trade emissions allowances – effectively putting a price on carbon.
Though this is promising news, it would be unwise to leave skepticism at the door. Cap-and-trade schemes in Europe and a handful of U.S. states have struggled to have a significant effect on emissions, mainly because of lousy execution. They have, for example, set caps too high, covered too narrow a set of polluters or given the emission allowances away. China already has seven regional cap-and-trade pilot programs that have had mixed results. One question will be whether China’s national program gets the details right.
Another reason to suspect this won’t work perfectly: Environmental data from China isn’t always reliable. Any future claims that the cap-and-trade program is working will need to be verified.
That said, there are big reasons to be hopeful. China’s alarming air pollution, which kills an estimated 4,000 people each day, gives the government good reason to make its policy work – beyond any concern for global climate.
China’s announcement also demonstrates its determination to lead in the development, manufacture and deployment of clean-energy technologies, to remain in the forefront of a growing industry. At this point, rather than continue to ask why the U.S. should be first to act against climate change, Congress might well worry whether it can afford to be second.
This is an excerpt from Bloomberg View.