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Time for a little back-patting – which also has the virtue of presenting a crucial link between issues that’s way too often ignored by policymakers, especially in Washington. It’s the link between U.S. trade policy on  the one hand, and China’s responsibility for mounting world levels of greenhouse gas emissions and widespread concerns about global warming on the other. More specifically, the case has just been strengthened for an argument I made years ago that fending off the global warming challenge didn’t seem possible without major limits on exports of China’s emissions-intensive products.   

For years it’s been evident that China’s jaw-dropping economic development has been a major contributor to global greenhouse emissions in recent decades. That’s not grounds for condemning Chinese practices per se. After all, even though Beijing’s environmental policy record is unmistakably terrible, strong grounds existed for believing that China was simply behaving similarly to the United States and other currently wealthy countries – which had the undeserved good fortune to enjoy their own industrialization takeoffs, and the high living standards they made possible, way before such climate concerns emerged.  As a result, they could emit to their heart’s contents without any apparent costs to the planet’s future.

But there’s been another crucial difference between the U.S. emissions record and the Chinese emissions record, and one that can’t justify continued passivity over the latter: America’s 19th century industrialization stemmed mainly from the operation of free market forces. China’s ongoing industrialization phase has been planned and carried out overwhelmingly by government, meaning that its course and structure have reflected national policy choices.

The point here isn’t to tout the superiority of markets. Instead, it’s to note that, as a result, China’s modernization is an especially artificial creation, along with the resulting volumes of emissions. They’re not the consequence of the kind of natural economic evolution undergone by earlier generations of developed countries, even when – as has been the case especially in Europe – government was hardly an economic bystander.

I was thinking about these patterns of development several years ago when I came across a research report that documented my instincts. Moreover, this Peterson Institute study emphasized not only the state-directed nature of Chinese industrialization. It showed how the nation’s move into emissions-intensive heavy industries like steel and cement and chemicals clashed violently with how free markets would have shaped China’s economy. For China’s overwhelming natural, competitive advantage – the assets from which early industrial success should have originated – was a huge pool of low-cost labor.

As a result, a freer China both would have started off in labor-intensive industries and stayed largely in those sectors for many years. The kinds of industries China rushed into, however, were capital-intensive industries – where China had major natural disadvantages that Beijing tried to offset with a wide range of trade barriers to fend off foreign competition, and with subsidies aimed at speeding up progress whether much demand existed for Chinese products or not.

In fact, the study found, these heavily emitting industries had grown so enormous that their greenhouse gas-boosting role greatly exceeded even that of China’s breakneck adoption of personal cars, air conditioners, and other signs of growing consumer prosperity.

Most important for U.S. policymakers, because these and other parts of China’s economy were so export-oriented (since like other low-income countries, China lacked the wealth to finance its own development adequately mainly by supplying its own demand), China’s stunning export success had turned into a major engine of global warming. And this engine’s immense scale, and carbon footprint, also owed mainly to Chinese government interventions that flouted not only free market norms but free trade norms – typically at the expense of U.S. and other foreign industries and workers.

So in early 2008, I wrote an article for a syndication service that advocated using trade policy to fight global warming by slowing the Chinese export machine with tariffs on Chinese imports. Seven years later, I’m pleased to report the emergence of new evidence linking China’s emissions growth to its export growth. As this New York Times article summarizes, economists and climatologists now agree that up to a third of China’s total emissions come from its exports. But a September study in the journal Nature Climate Change also found that China’s exports generate eight times the emissions levels of its imports. For the United States, the ratio is 0.5, and even for India, another very low-income country, it’s only 1.3. Therefore, consuming goods from China adds much more to climate change dangers than consuming goods from elsewhere.

China’s outlier status, the Nature Climate Change authors conclude, results overwhelmingly from China’s coal-based energy mix and the very high emissions intensity (emission per unit of economic value) in a few provinces and industry sectors.” Therefore, they’re optimistic that the greenhouse gas dangers created by China’s trade can be reduced with targeted efforts to improve production technologies.

But they also allow that “reducing trade volumes” from these sources may be needed, and one major finding suggests that broader trade curbs may be needed: the fact that “production in China is several times as carbon intensive as the same production in other countries” regardless of product. In fact, although the emissions intensity of Chinese exports from wealthier provinces is much lower than that for products from poorer provinces, even these levels are three, four, and even five times higher than U.S. levels.

President Obama seems to have other ideas. His summit last month with Chinese leader Xi Jinping produced a statement that Beijing would launch a national cap-and-trade system by 2017, saw a reaffirmation of an earlier Chinese promise to stop the rise in its emissions by 2030 at the latest, and elicited a promise by China to spend more than $3 billion helping other developing countries to deal with climate change. Mr. Obama and Xi also offered a “common vision” for progress at an upcoming United Nations meeting to create a framework for a new international climate change agreement. But given China’s penchant for breaking international agreements, it’s still clear to me that if you’re serious about attacking climate change, you need to be serious about dramatic curbs on China’s exports.

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