Those who oppose U.S. action to limit carbon pollution often say that it wouldn't do any good because China's emissions growth would overwhelm any emissions reductions that we make.
They say we should not do anything unless and until China acts. We should let China take the lead. It certainly is puzzling to hear self-proclaimed conservatives saying that America should forsake global leadership on a critical issue and defer to the world's largest communist country.
In any event, here's a news flash: China is not waiting for the U.S. to make up its collective mind about reducing carbon emissions. Chinese investments in low-carbon energy technologies are outpacing America's. As Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Bipartisan Policy Center last week (yes, there is such a thing in hyper-polarized Dee Cee), the U.S. is in danger of falling behind. "We are at risk of losing the race to develop alternative energy and new technologies to China," said Collins, who, together with Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, is backing a cap-and-dividend bill to put a price on carbon, auction emissions allowances, and return 75 percent of the proceeds to the taxpayers.
Critics of carbon curbs might dismiss Collins' statement as a way to hype her bill. Let's look at some numbers. A new Pew study estimates that $162 billion was invested globally in renewable energy and biofuels last year, up 230 percent from 2005, despite the weak economy. Given their financial heft, the G-20 countries dominated clean energy investments. And who was number 1? China, with $34.6 billion invested. The U.S. was second, at only $18.6 billion. If you count the European Union's 27 countries as one bloc, the EU was tops at $41.1 billion, making the U.S. a distant third.
The U.S. also is lagging in the rankings for the rate of clean energy investment growth. Over the past five years, China's 148 percent growth was good for third place. The U.S. figure of 103 percent was sixth. First place went to a country not often thought of as a renewable energy leader - Turkey.
Look at clean energy investments as a percentage of gross domestic product, and the U.S. doesn't even make the top 10. Tops in that regard is Spain, followed by the U.K. and China.
Policy choices shape the investment environment. China has set national targets for renewable energy development, which U.S. lawmakers still resist. China's targets include 30,000 megawatts each from wind and biomass energy by 2020. Other countries that have taken the plunge and set national renewable energy standards include most of the rest of the G-20, including such medium-size players as Argentina and South Korea.
Anecdotes are not empirical evidence, but they reveal the stories behind investment choices. A recent New York Times article tells the story of NatCore, a New Jersey company that developed a method of manufacturing solar photovoltaic panels that are thinner, thus reducing the energy and chemicals needed to make them. NatCore's CEO said U.S. companies weren't interested, but Chinese, Taiwanese, and Brazilian developers "were all over us." NatCore made a deal with Chinese companies to mass-produce the product in Changsha, a manufacturing center in southern China. Changsha got the jobs, a U.S. community didn't.
The clean energy race is on. There is an indispensable step that America must take to win it - put a price on carbon. It's the linchpin of a strategy to retool the economy and enhance energy security. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said repeatedly that a price on carbon would turn capital loose on energy technologies that can clean up the environment, enhance energy security, and lay a new foundation for prosperity. As Graham mentioned to NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman last month: "I tell my voters: 'If we try to clean up the air and become energy independent, we will create more jobs than anything I can do as a senator.'"
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