Running Away With It

By: John A. Lanier

If the major economies of the world are in a race for the most robust and sustained economic growth, then China may have just broken from the pack.

I am not an expert on long-distance running. Neither did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I do, however, watch the Summer Olympics every four years (or…you know……five years, seeing as we can’t have nice things in 2020), so I feel confident in opining on what is the most interesting part of a distance race. Arguably, it’s the only interesting part of a race [ducking to avoid the tomatoes thrown by any runners out there].
I’m talking about when someone breaks from the pack. If you’ve ever seen a distance race on television or in person, you probably noticed that most of the runners stay bunched up together for the majority of the race. No one is running as fast as they can right out of the gate because they need to conserve energy to maintain a solid pace throughout. Toward the end though, someone will be the first to break from the pack and start running much faster, hoping they’ll be able to sustain the accelerated pace through the finish line. At that moment, the other runners must decide whether to keep up or hope the first runner broke too soon.
I was reminded of that phenomenon when I read last week about the new climate commitment made by China’s President Xi Jinping. Here’s a good writeup on it by Marketplace, but the main highlight is that China has announced a goal of being carbon neutral as a country by 2060.
I have a few quick hitting thoughts before I get back to my runner analogy. First, I think this is big news, and I think every country should have a stated goal for carbon neutrality. Second, I wish they would be even more ambitious and aim for 2050! Third, I’m quite skeptical that this will lead to short-term climate action by China, given how important coal is to their economy right now. All that said, I was still heartened and hopeful in reading the news.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled analogy. If the major economies of the world are in a race for the most robust and sustained economic growth, then China may have just broke from the pack. To explain why, imagine for just one moment that China is successful in going carbon neutral by 2060. What will their economy look like?
The answer is that they’ll have electrified nearly everything, from transportation to industry to all aspects of their built environment. That electricity will come almost exclusively from renewable sources. The end result will be an economy that is massively more resource and energy efficient than its current one.
Now what if other countries don’t keep up with China in making that transition? Those countries will find themselves with relatively inefficient economies competing against China’s efficient one. We have already seen what cheap labor has done to supercharge China’s economy, and cheap energy and resource efficiency would only supercharge it further. They would have a GIGANTIC first mover advantage in our globalized economy.
If other major economies want to remain competitive with China, they will have to keep pace on the low-carbon transition. Even better though, countries should try to beat them to the finish line! If we see the largest economies of the world competing to become carbon neutral first, that’s the sort of race that no one will lose.