Climate change. A pledge as bold as sending a man to the moon

Beijing – On May 25, 1961, US President John F. Kennedy announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American to the Moon before the end of the decade. This goal was achieved in less than ten years when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface on July 20, 1969. Kennedy’s decision to pursue this extremely challenging technological feat was spurred in part by the desire to gain supremacy over the Soviet Union.

Today the greatest threat to the American way of life is not communism but the warming of the planet. America needs a president who will stand before the television cameras and proclaim that within a decade five of America’s most heavily polluted major cities will be transformed into green cities with a low carbon economy. And that alone will not suffice. To ensure that his pledge is as groundbreaking for humankind as the manned lunar mission was in 1969, Barack Obama has to find a way to persuade China’s President Hu Jintao to stand beside him and pledge to do the same in China. If the US and China were to transform Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Beijing, Xian, Chongqing, Jilin and Taiyuan into eco-cities, it would pave the way for the technology, logistical know-how, and financial mechanisms necessary to emulate a low carbon economy throughout the US and China.

There are several climate change initiatives being polished off for the new American president. Two of these focus on ways that the US and China could together reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through enhanced cooperation and pooling of resources. The US-China Ten-Year Framework on Energy and Environment that was signed in June 2007 also incorporates a broad range of joint projects designed to combat climate change. But though these initiatives spell out far-reaching measures and call for game-changing commitments they still do not go far enough in tackling head on the drastic problem facing the planet. As the two largest consumers of energy and the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, the United States and China must radically and urgently transform their economies if there is hope of limiting the rise in the planet’s temperature to two degrees, a goal deemed critical by scientists. They must indeed be prepared to take a leap that is comparable to sending a man to the moon. And to succeed this leap must be taken in tandem. It must capture the imagination of the world in the same way that the moon project did.

In principle policy-makers and the general public in the United States and China advocate action to combat climate change. But in both countries powerful lobby groups with vested interests oppose the federal / central government taking measures needed to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The current financial crisis has made it politically all the more difficult for the US Congress to agree on the details of a bill to curb US emissions. In China slowing economic growth and rising unemployment are sure to affect the political establishment’s willingness to implement costly policies to use more clean energy.

Even if China manages to meet its stringent targets to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy, China’s annual emissions are estimated to balloon by more than double by 2020 compared to 2000 levels. Every month China builds two coal-fired power plants and is being further locked into to the fossil-fuel trap to meet its continued upsurge in energy demand.

A more serious deterrence than the financial crisis from the perspective of global warming is the entrenched notion among a wide range of China’s policy-makers that Westerners are using climate change as a weapon to impede China’s economic growth. The mindset that “the US is intent to keep us down” is not a fringe phenomenon, rather a mainstream view among decision-makers in Beijing.

It is for this reason that only a bold and joint pledge by the American and Chinese presidents can genuinely make a difference. If Hu Jintao can be persuaded to make transforming China into a low carbon economy his political legacy, China will indeed become the world’s leading green nation. When the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party sets a political goal, allocating money and human resources is not an issue, as the world witnessed during the successful Beijing Olympics. Hu Jintao has already publicly supported the idea of China moving toward a low carbon economy. Barack Obama must also get on board and even take the lead.