The California-China-CO2 Connection

Smog at The Great Wall.jpg

Michael Peevey, President of the California Public Utilities Commission, is sincere and concerned about CO2 emissions. At a recent presentation at California State University Channel Islands, he spoke about California’s efforts to limit emissions. He mentioned green jobs, but, to his credit, he did not repeat the debunked claim that restricting CO2 emissions will be a net job creator. He also acknowledged that it doesn’t much matter what California does, if China doesn’t change its behavior. It turns out that if California were to reduce its carbon emissions to zero, in about a year and a half global CO2 would be higher anyway, just because of the growth in China’s emissions.

Peevey talked about California's increasingly ambitious plans for carbon reduction in the future. The goals include returning to 1990-level CO2 emmisions by 2020, and then an 80 percent reduction by 2050, regardless of population changes.

This is going to be expensive. And the price of some of the potential technology — such as capturing atmospheric CO2 and pumping it underground — will include a lot more than the direct cost. The ultimate costs will, unfortunately, include increased global CO2 emissions.

Some readers will remember the first time Larry Summers, the former US Treasury Secretary (under Bill Clinton) put his public career at risk because of his bluntness. In 1991, while Chief Economist at the World Bank, Summers gained international notoriety by saying in a memo, "I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under polluted."

That was the first of many times that lots of people demanded his head. He's since claimed that it was sarcasm, but I don't believe it. I believe he meant that environmental quality is a luxury good; that poor people need things like food and shelter, and they don't much care if they trash the environment in the process. So, if pollution were localized, the poor would gain jobs and the wealthy would have an improved environment. Presumably, each would be happier.

Of course, that sounds terrible to most people. But that's precisely what we are doing here in California, only we’re doing it worse.

California, by making production so very expensive, is chasing producers to places with low pollution controls. It's worse than the situation Summers describes, because carbon dioxide emissions do not remain local. They spread throughout the atmosphere. Perversely, California is causing a global increase in CO2 emissions by its regulations limiting CO2 emissions in California.

The problem is the result of acting on the concept of Think Globally and Act Locally (TGAL). TGAL works when pollution is local. But when air pollution is free to float around the world, you have to have a different strategy, and get the most reduction for your investment.

And you don’t get the most for your investment in California. In terms of carbon efficiency — the ability to generate output while emitting less CO2 — California is one of the world’s most efficient economies. Each new reduction in CO2 becomes increasingly expensive. That is, reducing emissions is subject to increasing marginal costs. Reducing carbon emission in California is really expensive because we’re so carbon efficient already. Reaching the 2050 goal will be incredibly expensive. Worse, it won’t do any good.

It’s not as if California can really afford it. Last month, I participated in the South Coast Association of Governments (SCAG) Third Annual Economic Summit. This great event provided lots of information about the economic challenges facing Southern California. For example, we learned that Los Angeles County’s economy will probably not reach its pre-recession level of jobs until at least 2018 and perhaps not until 2020.

That’s a sobering thought.

California State Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Los Angeles, a powerful speaker, documented California’s industrial decline, and made an emotional appeal for polices that produce jobs. The audience gave Wright a rousing ovation, something quite rare at economic conferences. The problem is that the audience was comprised of economic development people. Too bad no one else was listening. It was poorly attended by policy makers. There were only a handful of elected officials.

California’s economy is struggling, even if many in the political class refuse to acknowledge the fact. Because of that, our investments need to be wise. The correct strategy for California is global. We need to go looking for the low hanging fruit.

The low hanging fruit is mostly in developing countries like China, India and Brazil. We've tried to get them to cut their emissions at Kyoto and the like, but they refused, pointing out that they are much poorer than the West, and that we were able to develop with lower-cost polluting industries. They have a point.

We should help them cut their carbon emissions. Reducing a ton of CO2 emissions is far cheaper in China than in California. So, let’s reduce it there.

There are political problems with this proposal. California’s carbon regulations were sold to the people on the absurd claim that the regulations would be profitable: better than low cost, better than a free lunch.

The bigger problem would be convincing California voters to tax themselves to clean up Chinese factories. That seems to me to be an information dissemination problem. If Californians knew the true cost of the existing program, and how little reduction in global CO2 concentrations it brings, they might logically be willing to look at other approaches. If they knew how much more effective a dollar spent on Chinese emissions was than a dollar spent on California emissions, they might seriously consider the proposal. The proposal could always be sweetened by requiring that all the work be done by California companies.

It would be good for Californians. It would be a big step towards restoring California’s economic vigor. It would make a serious dent in global CO2 concentration. It would be less costly than our current plan.

Let’s do it.

Bill Watkins is a professor at California Lutheran University. and runs the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting, which can be found at

Flickr photo by doc tobin: Smog on the Great Wall.