Editorial Board

China to Congress: This Is How You Tackle Climate Change

If science can't persuade lawmakers to act, fear of getting outflanked by Beijing might.


Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Science, economics and even the Holy See have failed to persuade the U.S. Congress to tackle climate change. Now, perhaps an even more powerful influence may come to bear: the determination not to be outdone by China.

On Friday, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases announced it will begin a national cap-and-trade program in 2017. It will limit total emissions and let individual emitters, including power, steel, chemicals and other industrial producers, trade emissions allowances -- effectively putting a price on carbon.

QuickTake The Cost of Carbon

Though this is promising news, it would be unwise to leave skepticism at the door. Cap-and-trade schemes in Europe and a handful of U.S. states have struggled to have a significant effect on emissions, mainly because of lousy execution. They have, for example, set caps too high, covered too narrow a set of polluters or given the emission allowances away. China already has seven regional cap-and-trade pilot programs that have had mixed results. One question will be whether China's national program gets the details right.

Another reason to suspect this won't work perfectly: Environmental data from China isn't always reliable. It's been difficult to tell, for example, just how much the country has been able to reduce its coal consumption. Any future claims that the cap-and-trade program is working will need to be verified.

That said, there are big reasons to be hopeful. China's alarming air pollution, which kills an estimated 4,000 people each day, gives the government good reason to make its policy work -- beyond any concern for global climate. And one of the chief drawbacks of cap-and-trade -- its reliance on heavy regulation -- is less of a concern in China's mix of a command and market economy.

What's more, the proposed program addresses one of the main reasons to question China's promise, last November, that its greenhouse-gas emissions would peak in 2030. Theoretically, cap-and-trade allows a country to set an emissions goal and work backward from there.

China's announcement also demonstrates its determination to lead in the development, manufacture and deployment of clean-energy technologies, to remain in the forefront of a growing industry. At this point, rather than continue to ask why the U.S. should be first to act against climate change, Congress might well worry whether it can afford to be second.