10. Environment

Updated: 1 April 2015



Environmental activists have tried for several decades to convince political leaders and ordinary citizens alike that the fate of our species in the 21st century critically depends on the introduction of various protective measures for our natural environment. Some environmentalists have argued that a fundamental change in lifestyles - particularly for the people in developed countries - is necessary. In the last three decades of the 20th century they have predicted an impressive array of global catastrophes, from oil and resource crises to the disappearance of forests ("Waldsterben") and coral riffs. They have forecasted the spread of poverty and famine due to over-population and soil degradation and the increase in flooding, landslides and extreme weather events due to global warming.
The question we have to answer here is which of these predictions will most likely have a decisive impact on the development of China, Europe or the United States. We have to ask: Are there any environmental trends that will threaten their economic growth or affect their political dominance?

Conflicts of interest

Environmentalists usually assume that modern societies and international relations would follow scientific advice. For instance, when researchers had identified carbon dioxide emissions as a primary source of climate change, many environmental activists had assumed that governments would quickly implement measures to reduce such emissions. This concept of "rational policy making" may be accurate within culturally highly homogenous, socially disciplined and technologically advanced societies like Denmark or Sweden. But the approach is rather unrealistic in the diverse and chaotic arena of international relations. Nations will not simply accept internationally binding environmental treaties if they contradict their national economic or political interests - no matter what environmental scientists might say. The fate of the Kyoto protocol is evidence for this. Clearly, interests and strategic considerations come before scientific insight.
China, Europe, and the United States of America do not share the same interest and strategy in environmental protection - not even with such an obviously shared problem as global climate change. In fact, they might use this problem to exercise political and economic blackmail on their opponents in the fight for dominance.
France for instance, favors nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions - which is certainly not unrelated to the fact that France wants to maintain the infrastructure for its ambitions as a nuclear military power; Germany, on the other hand, favors promotion of renewable energy such as solar and wind - which is a beneficial choice for its high-tech industry and reflects the strong popular opposition against nuclear power plants. The US, on the other hand, has no interest in reducing the consumption of hydrocarbons, because its enormous car- and truck-based infrastructure runs on gas and diesel and its energy-inefficient buildings and industries require cheap energy. In fact, the US greatly expanded domestic shale oil and gas production in recent years, ignoring the environmental damage due to "cracking" and also ignoring the inevitable increase in CO2 emissions. All these environmental problems were seen as less relevant. The United States' overriding objective was to become energy independent and at the same time lower the world market price of oil - which, incidentally, not only reduces costs for US industries, but also punishes the Russian Federation, and provides a politically opportune development aid to China.
In the 21st century environmental questions will be a component of the international power struggle. China, Europe and the United States will use such questions to gain economic and strategic advantages. Which country or region will be able to use emerging global environmental problems (such as climate change) to its advantage? Will Europe develop inexpensive and smart new technologies that save, generate, use and store energy far more efficiently than today? This could be a unique comparative advantage for the "old continent". Will China "leapfrog" the carbon-age and become a leader in renewable energy? They already dominate the production of photovoltaic cells. Will the United States Shale-gas program "out-price" any other energy source with dirt-cheap carbon-hydrates - making renewable energy generation, electric cars, and energy-efficient houses and appliances far too costly? This would not only boost US economic power, it would also allow Americans to continue driving gas-guzzling SUVs instead of bikes, buses and trains.

Environmental threats to growth

Governments do not care much about the concerns of environmental activists in the international arena. But they have to respond to the economic or health consequences of environmental problems in their own countries. The question therefore is: do China, Europe and the United States have environmental problems which are so serious that they might jeopardize their economic and political ambitions?
Would China, for instance, play a greater role in Asia and the world, if the country could solve its horrendous air- and water-pollution problems? Could Europe benefit economically from stricter environmental protection? Would the US become more powerful if they would strengthen environmental legislation?

Links to comparative analyses

In these analyses we will compare China, Europe, and the USA and ask, what interests they have in environmental questions and how their global position might be affected by environmental problems. These will be our criteria to asses each country's or region's comparative advantage.

Conflicts of interest

Environmental threats to growth

Links to online articles and statistics

Below are links for further reading. Attention was given to include a wide spectrum of opinions and academic positions:



Advertisement: Smart books from Amazon.com

Economy - The River Runs Black Day - China's Environment Vallianatos - Poison Spring Neufeldt - Climate Change

Elizabeth C. Economy (2010)
The River Runs Black. The environmental challenge to China's future. Council on Foreign Relations Book
Cornell University Press

Kristen A. Day (2005)
China's Environment and the Challenge of Sustainable Development. Routledge

E.G. Vallianatos / Jenkins McKay (2014)
Poison Spring. The secret history of pollution and the EPA.

Bloomsbury Press

Henry Neufeldt (2010)
Making Climate Change Work for US. European perspectives on adaptation and mitigation strategies. Cambridge University Press

In Association with Amazon.com



Creative Commons License "China-Europe-USA - Environment" by Gerhard K. Heilig is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Published: 2004; Revised: 2015