The debate concerning how much China should pollute is at the heart of international negotiations regarding climate change and environmental protection more generally. China is the world’s leading polluter and leading emitter of greenhouse gases. It insists that it has a right to emit as much as it wants in the future. China interprets the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” to mean that China has a responsibility to help avoid the harmful consequences associated with climate change, but that its responsibility is different from that imposed on the United States and the rest of the developed world. In fact, there is no basis in environmental law for a right to pollute as much as someone else has already polluted. To the contrary, American law specifically rejects the idea that clean air or water can be polluted until the pollution actually causes harm.
Despite its rhetoric, China has done much more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions than it is legally obligated to do. It has acted from a variety of motivations, including a desire for global leadership, genuine environmental concern, fear of domestic instability, and the opportunity for economic growth. These gains are checked, though, by China’s unwillingness to constrain its unprecedented economic growth and its inability to employ the law to actually control emissions.
This article concludes by trying to reconcile China’s rhetoric and China’s actions in an effort to solve the problems that China’s pollution poses for China, the United States, and the rest of the world. China should ensure that its pollution does not harm its own people or the rest of the world. China should commit to abiding by the rule of law to actually enforce the environmental regulations that it has enacted, and the United States can help China in that regard. The United States and China should also collaborate, compete, and commit in an effort to address the problems caused by China’s pollution.
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