Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Potential Benefits of California's Partnership With China

By Chris HarveyPublished November 8, 2013

China's major cities have been crippled by smog resulting from industrial pollution, emissions which also contribute greatly to global climate change. California's recent partnership to share low carbon strategies with China offers great potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address China's pollution problem. Furthermore, it serves as an exciting model for global collaboration on the issue of climate change.

By Chris Harvey

On October 21st 2013, airports, schools, and certain bus routes in the Chinese city of Harbin were shut down due to a record inflow of smog that reduced visibility to less than 100 feet and created conditions where the concentrations of air pollution reached up to 40 times above what the World Health Organization has deemed to be a safe level. Largely the result of a combination of an increased demand for cold power heating during recent colder temperatures and shifting weather patterns, this crippling pollution in Hardin, while record-setting, certainly isn't new to China.

China's expansion into a global economic power in recent decades hasn't been without a cost. Industrial pollution has shrouded China's major cities in thick layers of smog and in addition to being an eyesore, the pollution is an extreme hazard to human health. It is estimated that industrial pollution is the largest cause of cancer in China, and caused more than 1.2 million premature deaths (more than those related to tobacco smoking) in 2010. Furthermore, China's substantial increase in industrial pollution has made China the largest emitter of Greenhouse Gases in the world (ahead of the U.S).

This problem, however, isn't going completely unaddressed. The Chinese government, in an effort to mitigate pollution, is attempting to curb the number of cars on congested city streets by implementing an alternate-day driving schedule depending on license plate number. In addition, it has set aside 5 billion Yuan ($818 million) as financial incentives to regions that make substantial improvements in air pollution reductions this year. It is doubtful, unfortunately, that these measures will show any significant success. China's increasing commitment to economic growth will most likely discourage the expensive improvements necessary for factories to clean emissions. It is also unlikely that government enforcement will be sufficient to take enough cars off the road to substantially reduce emissions. In the face of these barriers, however, there has been one recent development that could serve as a beacon of hope.

This past September, Chinese vice chairman Xie Zhenhua and California governor Jerry Brown signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on developing low-carbon emission strategies and clean technologies. California's per capita carbon emissions have been stable since the 1970, and, just this year, the state implemented a cap and trade carbon emissions system with the goal of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Such leadership in the area of greenhouse gas emission reduction makes California an ideal partner for China, where it has been estimated that damages to infrastructure and agriculture that will occur as a result of increased flooding due to climate change could reduce Chinese GDP by 5.3 percent by 2100. China has much incentive to avoid these losses, as well as to reduce the crippling smog that has engulfed its major cities as a result of industrial pollution.

One could make the argument that the partnership between China and California is simply an agreement to mentor one another and does not offer any specific solutions on how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and increase efficiency. I, on the other hand, see this as a fantastic model for global cooperation. With California and China both being major economic powers, this is not an insignificant partnership.  It is one that hopefully, with both developing and exporting clean technologies, will mutually spur economic growth in an efficient and sustainable manner. Because climate change is a global issue, collaborations such as these are necessary between all nations of the world in order to address climate change. In the case of China, this partnership will hopefully be invaluable in improving air quality and human health; and for California, it will further the state's position as a world leader in addressing climate change.