Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Developing Country and the Heavenly Palace

Some people spend their whole lives looking for the right excuse; a few simple words that give them a free pass to do whatever they want to do. It's equally true of countries looking to justify their own policies, and I can't think of any state that falls back on this kind of "excuse politics" more than the People's Republic of China. It's simple as excuses go, but it keeps appearing again and again: China is a developing nation. Therefore, China can do whatever the hell it wants and feels free to ignore any kind of environmental regulations, because it is a developing nation and is still building its economy.

I most recently encountered China falling back on this excuse in the context of the European Union's new carbon fees for airlines flying to European airports, a project that has also drawn vociferous opposition from airlines like Delta and Qantas because, boo-hoo, won't someone think of the airlines' profit margins? The Guardian reports that China's position is that "it is unreasonable for Europe to apply its policies to developing nations, which are still at the stage of rapid expansion of their airline industries and so find it difficult to cut overall emissions."

Most developing countries don't have four national airlines flying to Europe, and ultimately, the decision on what airlines fly to Europe is Europe's, not China's - and if Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, or Hainan Airlines don't want to pay the EU's carbon fees, I'm sure that other Asian ones like Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines will. Nevertheless, this is just the latest appearance of China's favorite excuse, and the latest reminder that the Chinese leadership apparently considers itself to have absolutely no responsibility at all for its current and future pollution path.

How dare you suggest this airline should pay for the externalities that its operations create! Why, next you'll want mining companies to finance the remediation of exhausted lands themselves, too!

Facts change quickly, though. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten years ago, China was unarguably a developing nation, but its breakneck development pace threatens to undercut its arguments. You may recall that back in September, China launched Tiangong 1 into orbit to serve as a testbed and demonstrator for its planned space station, and last week it reiterated its plan to undertake a crewed moon landing in the 2020s.

You'd think a developing country would have more important things to do with its money, like ensuring its major cities aren't drowning in choking clouds of smog that make 1970s Los Angeles look like a day at the park - but no. While its goal of lifting the Chinese population out of poverty is one that should be pursued, its method of pursuing it works at cross-purposes; with every day that passes, the strain on China's own environment becomes greater. It seems to me that a country in China's situation should have more important things to focus on than whether its airlines are making as much money as they can possibly make, or how much prestige it can earn in the international arena by putting boots on the moon.

That's just it, though. I seriously doubt that the Chinese government actually cares about the Chinese people in anything but an abstract sense; rather, I imagine that its priority is squarely the strengthening of China, with millions of people reduced to little counters in the game the Politburo plays. China's cooperation is essential for any developmental trajectory that would see the end of the twenty-first century better off than the beginning of it, but that cooperation will likely be hard to come by as long as it keeps beating its "developing" drum.

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