Kelly Sims Gallagher, one of the savviest early analysts of climate policy, has devoted the last few years to understanding the Chinese energy transition. Now the director of the Energy Technology Innovation Project at Harvard's Kennedy School, she has just published a fascinating account of the rise of the Chinese auto industry. Her research makes it clear that neither American industry nor the American government did much of anything to point the Chinese away from our addiction to gas-guzzling technology; indeed, Detroit (and the Europeans and Japanese to a lesser extent) was happy to use decades-old designs and processes.Much of China's auto industry consists of joint ventures between foreign auto-makers and Chinese companies. American firms, from what I gather, have been reluctant to share pollution-control technology with their Chinese counterparts primarily because of China's weak intellectual property protections. And Chinese companies, for their part, are not at the point where they can develop the technology themselves. Gallagher has also noted elsewhere, I think, that foreign companies actually did begun sharing once China started putting bare-bones environmental standards in place. For years, though, there were no incentives and China built a lot of dirty cars—and power plants, and factories, and lord knows what else.
"Even though cleaner alternatives existed in the United States, relatively dirty automotive technologies were transferred to China," she writes. One result is the smog that is choking Chinese cities; another is the invisible but growing cloud of greenhouse gases, which come from tailpipes but even more from the coal-fired utilities springing up across China. In retrospect, historians are likely to conclude that the biggest environmental failure of the Bush administration was not that it did nothing to reduce the use of fossil fuels in America, but that it did nothing to help or pressure China to transform its own economy at a time when such intervention might have been decisive.