China was responsible for 8 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions in 1980. By 2004, it was responsible for 18 percent. In April the International Energy Agency's chief economist declared that China would surpass the U.S. as the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases-not in 2009 or 2010, as previously thought, but this year. It may already have happened.
Also in April, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA would have to do more to regulate auto emissions, President Bush used China to excuse his inaction: "Unless there is an accord with China, China will produce greenhouse gases that will offset anything we do," he argued. Meanwhile, China's official response to a report released in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has since recommended that urgent action be taken to prevent catastrophic climate change, was that developed countries' responsibility for global warming "cannot be shirked." As a developing country, China should not be expected to wholly sacrifice its growth, said spokeswoman Jiang Yu. "It must be pointed out that climate change has been caused by the long-term historic emissions of developed countries and their high per-capita emissions."
The simple fact is that if the world's emissions are not reduced, global warming will flood Florida as surely as it melts China's Himalayas. Our fates are intertwined, and ever more so as China becomes the world's factory. Every minute of every day in 2005, American consumers bought $463,200 worth of Chinese goods-a number that has undoubtedly risen as the trade deficit has jumped from a monthly average of $16.8 billion in 2005 to more than $19 billion today. Chinese firms are blamed for deforesting tropical Southeast Asia, but 70 percent of the wood imported goes into furniture bound for Europe and North America. Energy-intensive heavy industry such as steel production is migrating from the developed world to China's eastern coast. A 2005 study by Bin Shui and Robert Harris of Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research determined that from 1997 to 2003, China-U.S. trade increased global CO2 emissions by 720 million metric tons. Some 7 to 14 percent of China's emissions resulted from exports to American customers; had the goods been produced here, our national
CO2 emissions would be up to 6 percent higher, and the U.S. would still be the top greenhouse emitter in the world. Simply put, this is our pollution too-we've just outsourced it to China.
It seems only right, then, that the world's great planners and architects and environmentalists are landing in droves in Beijing and Shanghai, hoping to help China engineer itself out of a crisis, to prevent it from repeating the West's mistakes. The more the world realizes that its environmental future is tied to China's, the more experts will come. The question, ultimately, is whether all their grand efforts will make any difference at all.
On a Friday a week before my trip to Huangbaiyu, 200 of the planet's top green architects, engineers and urban planners were packed into a hall at Shanghai's Tongji University, listening, rapt, to a talk by Peter Head of the global design firm Arup. The subject was the eco-city of Dongtan, an Arup-led project 25 miles away on the Yangtze River's Chongming Island, the Shanghai municipality's last patch of undeveloped land. "Dongtan is a specific project for a specific place. . . . But the world is reacting to it," he said. "It's a vision for how we can transform cities into something better."
A soft-spoken man in his early 60s with a gray mustache and a penchant for occasional Britishisms such as "jiggery-pokery," Head was something of a star in this crowd. The leader of Arup's 100-person Dongtan team, he is an engineer and bridge-builder who has spent eight years on London's Sustainable Development Commission. He had a hand in imposing on London drivers the 8 ($16) congestion fee that has made the city notably quieter and freer of traffic (New York is considering a similar system), and now he is creating what many hope will be the world's first true eco-city. One PowerPoint slide showed him in the company of British prime minister Tony Blair and Chinese president Hu Jintao, signing the 2005 agreement to build Dongtan, a project that, unlike little Huangbaiyu, is being pushed by the highest levels of the Chinese government.