Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Will China drive conservation in the States?

Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein argues that the emergence of China as a global economic power will fuel conservation efforts in the United States:

But the energy and environmental ramifications may justify far more concern. The acquisition attempt, which the Unocal board is studying, suggests that China is anticipating enormous increases in its consumption of fossil fuels. The direct result for the United States and other nations could be a threatening rise in the carbon dioxide emissions associated with global warming, as well as higher gas prices at the pump.

"The more their demand, the higher oil and gas prices are going to go here," says Michael R. Wessel, a member of the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. "All people have to do is look at the $2.50 a gallon for gas they spend on their summer vacation to realize that the China problem is here to stay."

Chinese demand isn't the only cause of rising gas prices, of course. China uses far less energy per person than the United States or other Western nations. But it is much less efficient in its energy use than major industrialized nations, partly because it relies so heavily on coal to generate electric power.

China requires about three times as much energy as the United States to produce $1 in economic output. It emits nearly four times as much carbon dioxide per dollar of economic activity as the United States. That means that as China's rapid economic growth continues, its demand for energy and its contribution to global warming will skyrocket.

Of course, there is an alternative scenario that isn't considered. Since the energy costs of economic growth are higher for the Chinese, doesn't it make more sense that the Chinese--not more developed nations--will make the jump to alternatives first? In doing so, could they make those alternative-energy technologies more cost-effective and drive a global revolution through market forces, not government regulation?