Through the past four years I’ve often suggested that China’s vaunted achievements are less impressive, or at least more complicated, seen up close. Yes, Chinese factories make nearly all of the world’s consumer electronic equipment. But the brand names, designs, and most of the profits usually belong to companies and people outside China. Yes, China’s accumulated trade surpluses have made it the creditor for America and much of the world. But the huge share of its own wealth that China has sunk into foreign economies ties its fate to theirs. Yes, more and more Chinese people are very rich. But hundreds of millions of Chinese people are still very poor. Yes, Chinese factories lead the world in output of windmills and solar-power panels. But China’s environmental situation is still so dire as to pose the main threat not just to the country’s public health and political stability but also to its own economic expansion.
This report will have a different tone. I have been learning about an area of Chinese achievement that is objectively good for the world as a whole, including the United States. Surprising enough! And China’s achievement dramatically highlights a structural advantage of its approach and a weakness of America’s. It involves the shared global effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, of which China and the United States are respectively the No. 1 and No. 2 producers, together creating more than 40 percent of the world’s total output. That shared effort is real, and important. The significant Chinese developments involve more than the “clean tech” boom that Americans have already heard so much about. Instead a different, less publicized, and much less appealing-sounding effort may matter even more in determining whether the United States and China can cooperate to reduce emissions. This involves not clean tech but the dirtiest of today’s main energy sources—coal.